How looking at art helps police officers pay attention to details

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A New York City detective was called to a crime scene in an industrial part of Brooklyn, New York, where he was told a female prostitute had been found dead.

When the detective arrived, he noticed a small, unusual detail: The victim had matching well-manicured fingernails and toenails, an uncommon feature in the investigator's experience with sex workers. The perfectly polished nails hinted that the Jane Doe was someone else. And she was: The woman turned out to be a missing criminal justice grad student. The detective's eye for detail directed him toward the truth.

The incident with the Brooklyn investigator is a real example used by art historian Amy Herman in her seminar "The Art of Perception." The course utilizes fine art as a tool to test and strengthen perception skills and challenge inherent biases. Herman's 2016 book "Visual Intelligence" also employs art's unique ability to nudge viewers to think about what's in front of them. In the case with the detective, Herman recounted, "When he got to the crime scene, he said, 'I remembered from your class: Look at the big picture, and look at the small details.'"

Famous works such as Hieronymus Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights" (1490-1500) -- with its absurd, unsettling creatures -- are used as lessons in objectivity: Explain what's there without emotion. Édouard Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère" (1882) is an exercise in standing in someone else's shoes: Look through the bartender's eyes. What does she see?

Dulled perceptions can just as easily lead us to the wrong conclusions, without any awareness of our delusion. Herman, a former lawyer, was privy to malfunctioning human machinery in the courtroom; eyewitness testimonies are surprisingly inaccurate.

With this in mind, she developed the course known as "The Art of Perception" while working in the education department at New York City's Frick Collection in 2001. The program initially came about solely for medical students -- a career where a wrong observation can mean life or death -- but Herman knew her course applied to professions beyond medicine. "Medical students don't have much peripheral vision," she said.

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres's "Comtesse d'Haussonville" (1845) must be suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, and Giovanni Bellini's "St. Francis in the Desert" (ca. 1476-78) is surely in the midst of a psychotic break."They kept saying, 'Who has cancer? Who has an illness?'" Herman recalled.

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