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Seeing invisible details and avoiding predictable, conditioned thought

Last updated: Jun 26, 2024
In this essay, I explore the idea of seeing the unseen aspects of things. I discuss several authors on this topic: Rob Walker, an art critic; Viktor Shklovsky, Russian formalist literary critic; and Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. My main point is to avoid predictable, conditioned thought by pausing to ask questions about our experiences and the environment around us. In a world where prediction algorithms constantly direct us toward the most likely next word, pushing back and embracing creative ways of seeing and intepreting the world can inject new ideas and perspectives in ways that rejuvenate us.


In this essay, I want to articulate an idea that I’ve been thinking about for some time. I’m not sure exactly how this idea fits in with zen and being present and mindfulness, but it does. This idea is something that has changed me, including the way I feel, at times, about the things around me, more than almost anything else.

The idea is this: Pause and look at familiar things in unfamiliar ways. I specifically try to find three questions I can ask. What I examine could be an experience, something said, my environment, a circumstance, a problem I’m solving, something I see, or experience — any aspect of life. Instead of going with my immediate reaction and response, I stop and ask a few questions about it. The questions will prompt me to pause just enough to start seeing it in an unfamiliar light, sometimes as if seeing it for the first time.

Walker’s The Art of Noticing

This technique isn’t new. It ties in with a larger act of noticing, such as that articulated in Rob Walker’s recent book The Art of Noticing. The basic idea is to notice what you didn’t see before. Give attention to something, even as familiar as it is. When you look at or consider the thing, ask questions. The questions will almost always prompt a different perspective, even on familiar things.

Walker explains:

Paying attention is a pretty vital skill … being what Saul Bellow called a “first-class noticer” — cultivating the ability to attend to what others overlook, experiencing “enchanting reality” as a new and fortuitous gift — is crucial to any creative process. And when I say “creative process,” I mean it as an idea that applies to a broad range of professions and pursuits. The scientist, the entrepreneur, the photographer, the coach: Each relies on the ability to notice that which previously seemed invisible to everybody else. (x-xi)

Noticing the invisible forces you to focus on the present, to look at the detail of something with more examination than before. One time I was sitting with my wife and kids at a nearby diner and started looking at the shell pattern design on the silverware. Surprisingly, this prompted a twenty-minute conversation into the symbology of the shell and the origins of the pattern, mostly driven by my wife. Why that symbol? What were its roots? Was it a brand, or a representation of some idea? The small detail was something we’d never noticed before, but it didn’t take long before that detail became an object of curiosity.

Walker continues:

Anybody interested in thinking creatively seeks (needs) to notice what has been overlooked or ignored by others, to get beyond distractions and attend to the world. Every day, successful teachers, doctors, lawyers, small business owners, and middle managers pick up on the subtle clues and details that sail past everyone else. (xi)

Although artists occupy the most pages in Walker’s book, he extends the same art of noticing to other professions too. Walker’s book mostly consists of concise descriptions of various techniques (134 of them), such as looking way up, or listening to the silence in music, or creating a sonic profile of your own sounds, or the liminal space between two states of a thing, eating at every restaurant along a street, talking to an elder as a future form of yourself, making 5 very specific compliments to others, and so on.

Walker quotes Rob Forbes, Design Within Reach founder, who says,

It’s about observation and thinking… When you discover something special out there it’s like stumbling into a cafe or shop that was not listed in a tourist guide — your experience of the world is much richer because you did it on your own. (14)

I agree that discovering these details on your own is more satisfying than having them articulated by others. I’m not sure why, but it gives more autonomy and self-direction to the activity, and this makes it more pleasing.

Some mundane examples

To begin noticing, you can start anywhere, with anything. Be open to where the questions lead you. Stopping to ask these questions might jolt you out of a familiar, conditioned response. Then once you’re out of that conditioned response, you might start to see the thing in an unfamiliar way. Suddenly, the familiar can show a new facet. It’s a bit of a rush when this happens. Even the most mundane thing can suddenly become something to wonder about. This is somewhat parallel to the phenomenon of semantic saturation, in which looking at a word for an extended period of time causes its display to dismantle into meaninglessness.

This shift in perspectives, which might be classified as mindfulness or being present in the moment, could also be the key to harmonious relationships with others, as well as a strategy for shifting your psychology out of low moods.

To give some basic examples, one morning I asked my wife if she would cut my hair (she’s been cutting my hair for the past 25 years). I wanted to set up a chair in our bathroom to do it, but she said she wanted to cut my hair on the back patio. My initial reaction was that the back patio would be cold and wet, but instead of going with my first reaction here, I stopped and paused at the moment a bit. (Question 1) Why not go out on the back patio? (Question 2) Why was that patio one of my wife’s favorite spots? In fact, she often spends hours just lying on the swing in our back porch. She’s doing me a favor by cutting my hair. (Question 3) Would I get a better haircut on the back patio?

And by asking these simple questions in my mind, in the course of a minute, I was carrying the hair clippers out to the back porch, which I quickly realized was a nice place in the cool morning of what would be a hot Seattle day.

As another example, I was standing in line at a coffee shop one morning, the standard Starbucks on a Saturday morning while my daughter practiced soccer at a nearby field. I was thinking back on the week and reflecting on a meeting I’d had that annoyed me, where a product manager and lawyer indicated that some AI tools I’d grown to love might not be fully green-lit for documentation usage at this point in time. Instead of going with my initial, automatic reaction of sliding further down the rabbithole of grumpiness, I thought, (Question 1) what if I could no longer use AI at work? Maybe this switch back to manual writing mode would let me truly see just how much AI was helping or hindering. I remembered how removing email and chat notifications from my phone allowed me to experience life differently; then restoring the apps, and removing them again, allowed me to see their effects. In the same way, this AI abstinence could be good. I might learn that AI isn’t that much help at all, or maybe it’s a huge help. (Question 2) Why was I so resistant or threatened by the policy in the first place? (Question 3) Why didn’t they have a better understanding of what technical writers create?

In shifting out of this automated mode, mainly through a series of small questions, I suddenly found myself in a new space, where answers were unknown, and where the thing I thought I knew looked different than before. My curiosity strengthened. This curiosity opened me up to new ideas and interpretations. I became aware that what I thought I knew might not be the case, or that some new perspective might also be equally valid and interesting.

These are mundane experiences, but we have them all day long. The point is that they’re mundane. As I said, you can start anywhere. We operate in automated ways through so much of life. Part of the idea of mindfulness and presence is to stop and empty our mind of previous thought, or of all thought, and then to start noticing each and every little detail we didn’t notice before.

In meditation sessions, with eyes closed, the meditation guides often tell participants to focus on their breathing rather than chasing various thoughts. After focusing on your breathing for a few minutes, they might instruct you to start noticing all bodily sensations, starting at the top of your head and making your way down to your toes, listening to your body to identify feelings that you might have been unaware of previously. In other words, they try to get you to notice what you haven’t noticed before. To pay attention to the present moment and even the smallest, most subtle feelings that you might have been oblivious to.

Walker says the opposite of the noticing mindset “would be automation, unconsciousness, and a kind of death.”

I’m not saying that I always strive to look at things in novel ways, or to find original wording to describe my experiences, or that maintaining this perspective throughout the day is sustainable. This is something I might do once or twice a day, almost done as a passing novelty to amuse me with some new thought. There is also much to appreciate from automating a routine, especially exercise, and often times I’ll look past many city details while I’m listening to a podcast riding my bike, or working through documentation updates. Even so, I still pause to examine something with a new point of view.

Shklovsky’s “Resurrection of the word”

In doing a bit of research, I learned that the ideas I’ve been describing here — noticing previously unnoticed details — have parallels to an idea called defamiliarization. Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky, in the early 1900s, argued that one of the roles of art is to jolt us out of an automated, conditioned response and prompt us to see in a new way. In his 1914 essay “Resurrecting the word,” he focuses on language in particular. He says we often use words and phrases in automatic ways, without connecting more authentically and genuinely with meaning. It’s the poet’s job, he says, to cast new language that disrupts this conditioned response.

Shklovsky writes:

The most ancient human poetic creation was the creation of words. Today, words are dead, and language resembles a graveyard, but newly-born words were alive and vivid. Every word is originally a trope. … And often, when you get through to the lost, effaced image which was the original source of the word, you find yourself struck by its beauty — the beauty which existed once, and is no more. (63-64)

Think of the first time someone invents a metaphor — the connection is fresh and interesting. It lights the imagination and makes language fun. But hundreds of years later, that same metaphor becomes a cliché, one that’s said with almost no thought or understanding. It becomes automated discourse that fails to evoke the initial delight.

Shklovsky continues:

Old works of verbal art experience the same fate as the word itself. They journey from poetry to prose. They stop being seen and begin being recognized. Classic works have become covered with the glass armor of familiarity — we remember them too well, we’ve heard them as children, we’ve read them in books, we’ve quoted them in passing, and now we have calluses on our souls — we no longer experience them. (67)

These phrases and ways of seeing become too familiar to prompt the initial reflection they once did.

The broad masses are content with marketplace art, but marketplace art shows the death of art. (69) … Nowadays, old art has already died, new art has not yet been born, and things have died — we have lost our awareness of the world; we resemble a violinist who has ceased to feel the bow and strings; we have ceased being artists in everyday life, we do not love our houses and our clothes, and we easily part with life, for we do not feel life. Only the creation of new art forms can restore to man the experience of the world, can resurrect things and kill pessimism. (70)

Like Walker, Shklovsky equates the lack of feeling with not being alive. If we slip into familiarity and automated language and actions, we no longer connect with the experience or with meaning and life. We become dead, automatons. New artists can help resurrect language by injecting new metaphors and ways of seeing, new forms of art. Shklovsky continues:

The paths of new art have only been lightly traced. Not theorists but artists will be the first to travel these paths. (72)

In other words, new art has the courage to go in untraveled or lightly traveled directions. It takes the artist’s perspective to break from the familiar path and instead find a new way. Their footprints will be among the first in this direction. Later, the theorists and critics will follow those footprints, making the path into a more familiar rut. Eventually, the route will be paved and mapped for the masses, who travel the route without much thought or observation.

But that initially new direction, the footprints laid down by artists, initially awakens our minds and prompts new interpretation, processing, and sense-making.

Reading Shklovsky made me think back to years ago, when I used to go to church. During that time, the phenomenon of language automation struck me especially with prayer. When people prayed in church meetings, they entered a discourse of common phrases and speech such that if you’d heard enough prayers, you internalized the speech and could give a prayer on automatic. For example, suppose you were to give a prayer at the start of a meeting. You could stand up and without even thinking, just start rattling off the phrases and discourse you’d learned from the environment, without thinking much at all. Then attribute the spontaneous parroting to the Holy Ghost rather than the internalized discourse.

Every once in a while, a new person would give a prayer who hadn’t been conditioned in the discourse of prayer. It was fascinating to hear words that broke free from the automated discourse. The words felt authentic, genuine, and interesting. My attention hung on every word. Gradually, the new person’s speech would give way to the same internalized phrasings and clichés, and before long prayer would lose its meaning.

So much is life. I see the same phenomenon with my children. Sometimes my younger children will say things in deconditioned ways that ring true and genuine. As they grow up, more of their language and thoughts become conditioned by their environments.

An artist or original thought producer must try to break free from familiarization. When you do, you move past the layer of societal learning that coats your own ideas with a refracting lens.

Shklovsky’s “Art as device”

In another essay, “Art as Device,” Shklovsky argues similar themes. Rather than repeat my same commentary, at this point in the argument I want to discuss the relationship with AI. Shklovsky writes:

Considering the laws of perception, we see that routine actions become automatic. All our skills retreat into the unconscious-automatic domain; you will agree with this if you remember the feeling you had when holding a quill in your hand for the first time or speaking a foreign language for the first time, and compare it to the feeling you have when doing it for the ten thousandth time. It is the automization process which explains the laws of our prosaic speech, its under-structured phrases and its half-pronounced words. This process is ideally expressed in algebra, which replaces things with symbols. In quick practical speech, words are not spoken fully; only their initial sounds are registered by the mind….

He compares automation to algebra, where symbols act as shorthand for the real things, and then we think in this symbolic shorthand, overlooking the details of the thing. This algebraic thinking isn’t a math-based perspective but more of an automated way of overlooking and quickly classifying and categorizing the familiar.

Shklovsky continues:

The algebraic way of thinking takes in things by counting and spatializing them; we do not see them but recognize them by their initial features. A thing passes us as if packaged; we know of its existence by the space it takes up, but we only see its surface. Perceived in this way, the thing dries up, first in experience, and then its very making suffers; because of this perception, prosaic speech is not fully heard… and therefore not fully spoken….

Algebraizing, automatizing a thing, we save the greatest amount of perceptual effort: things are either given as a single feature, for instance, a number, or else they follow a formula of sorts without ever reaching consciousness.

Shklovsky then quotes from Tolstoy’s diary in which Tolstoy describes how actions can become so automated they’re immediately forgotten, such as dusting a room. Tolstoy says,

I was dusting in the room; having come full circle, I approached the sofa and could not remember if I had dusted it or not. I couldn’t because these movements are routine and not conscious, and I felt I never could remember it. So if I had cleaned the sofa but forgotten it, that is if this was really unconscious, it is as if this never happened. If somebody had watched consciously, reconstruction would have been possible. But if nobody watched, if nobody watched consciously, it is as if this life had never been. (Tolstoy 354; diary entry, February 29, 1897). (79-80)

We might not be dusting but going about life on automatic, not consciously seeing or interpreting or internalizing what we’re doing or thinking.

Shklovsky says:

“This is how life becomes nothing and disappears. Automatization eats things, clothes, furniture, your wife and the fear of war. … … And so, what we call art exists in order to give back the sensation of life, in order to make us feel things, in order to make the stone stony. The goal of art is to create the sensation of seeing, and not merely recognizing, things; the device of art is the “ostranenie” of things and the complication of the form, which increases the duration and complexity of perception, as the process of perception is its own end in art and must be prolonged. Art is the means to live through the making of a thing; what has been made does not matter in art.” (80)

The artist enables us to see, not just recognize, the things around us. A translator’s footnote says that the word ostranenie refers to a poet’s observation that “the making matters, and not what has been made; what has been made are but wood shavings.”

The emphasis on making rather than the thing made reminds me of a recent podcast I heard (This Week in Tech, episode 978), in which the hosts discuss AI tools for making music. Through some textual prompts, you can conjure music from AI. The hosts say that these tools focus on the output, not on the process of making. But the purpose of making music is to make music, they say. Leo Laporte says, “You can get the output, but what you really want with music is to play music right to the process of making.”

Similarly, the purpose of writing isn’t to have a written artifact — it’s to write, to make sense and organize your thoughts and interpret and illuminate, etc. The purpose of writing is to write, not to have written. The making process is what’s transformative for the writer, not having a written artifact. If AI writes for you, you bypass that process of making and lose “the means to live through the making of a thing,” as Shklovsky says. The AI artifacts are meaningless because “what has been made does not matter in art.”

Shklovsky’s essay might have been written a hundred years ago, but his argument is particularly resonant in the age of generative AI (GenAI). If you write with GenAI, you’re literally using a machine that works by predicting the next most likely word in the sentence. This is the opposite of the process of making art. If you operate by writing what an AI model’s training anticipates to be the next most likely word, you’re falling into the zombie-like state of simply parroting back the discourse and ideas that society has conditioned you to write or say.

You restate perspectives that are the most likely ones to think, given your cultural and societal learning. It’s like giving a prayer on automatic, just opening your mouth and letting the layers of social learning take over. Instead of seeing something in a new way, GenAI teaches you to see it in the most expected, predictable way. This is why creative essays and other forms written with GenAI often fail to connect with the audience — this predictive mode is the antithesis of original artist making. Instead of seeing the unseen perspective and arguments, AI leads you to see the most predictable and cliché.

Instead of taking the next step in a prediction machine, the artist (or philosopher or writer) must puncture the layers of social and environmental conditioning to see a thing in a unique way, to cause him or herself to view that which he or she takes for granted in a new, unfamiliar way. As a writer, you need to connect with your inner thinking self (casting aside the layers of social learning) as you formulate words. You cast aside expectations of thought and plot to make your own strokes and other unique patterns. In other words, you have to cut the puppet’s strings.

That said, using AI in creative endeavors isn’t all bad. AI can often expand your ways of thinking, helping you see the unfamiliar in a new light. And if it does this, AI can be helpful. For example, when I started writing this article, I wanted to connect my initial ideas to larger ideas of thought and philosophies, and AI pointed me to Shklovsky’s essays. I wouldn’t normally read Russian literary formalist essays from a hundred years ago, but once pointed in this direction, Shklovsky’s essays expanded my thinking.

AI also pointed me to the works of Edmund Husserl, an Austrian-German philosopher whose ideas of phenomenology (the study of how we experience the world around us) include a technique called “epoché”. This is a method for peeling back the social-cultural lenses on experience to get to a more raw sense of our own interior. As I listened to more of Husserl’s ideas, the more I realized how deep the conversation is here. Philosophers have been trying to separate subject from object since Plato. Husserl isn’t trying to get a raw understanding of external objects but rather use the experience to map the subject’s interior (I think). I don’t have the patience to go deep in reading Husserl, but seeing how these ideas connect in other domains is interesting. AI can help make those connections.

Used as a research tool, AI can point you to larger themes, philosophies, and idea movements related to the topics you’re writing about. You can then explore these ideas in more depth yourself. But when AI then does the writing too, it can lead to an abdication of the process of making and to a loss of meaning. Without this sense of meaning in the making activity, we will cease to write, make music, or art. The focus on the artifact/output removes the meaningfulness of the activity. Without that sense of meaning through the making process, the artistic desire fizzles.

I want to add that I’m referring here to creative works, not to expository business writing or technical writing. I work as a technical writer creating API reference documentation. While there can be a sense of fulfillment and purpose in articulating the parameters and responses of an API request, more often than not, this type of writing (creating documentation) is in another genre and category — one where I welcome AI tools.

Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Let’s look at one more facet of this idea (unique ways of seeing). This final facet will explain the need to unsee, or rather to see past assumptions and previous training or rationalist thinking, as you solve problems.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the narrator explains the idea of stuckness in troubleshooting a “stuck screw.” A stuck screw is one whose heads have been stripped, rendering a screwdriver useless in removing it. There aren’t good instructions for removing a stuck screw. The narrator says that in troubleshooting, you have to clear your mind; you have to get rid of the assumptions that might be causing you to see the world in the same ruts and paths as before. The reality we see is a selection of facts — there might be many filtered-out facts we’re not seeing or considering because of the filters in our minds.

In our approaches to problem-solving, the narrator says there comes a point where rational, known understanding doesn’t contain the answer. Instead, we have to let “Quality” guide us to the answer. Quality is a kind of intuition or natural direction (or even an Eastern mystical concept). The narrator explains:

To put it in more concrete terms: If you want to build a factory, or fix a motorcycle, or set a nation right without getting stuck, then classical, structured, dualistic subject-object knowledge, although necessary, isn’t enough. You have to have some feeling for the quality of the work. You have to have a sense of what’s good. That is what carries you forward. This sense isn’t just something you’re born with, although you are born with it. It’s also something you can develop. It’s not just “intuition,” not just unexplainable “skill” or “talent.” It’s the direct result of contact with basic reality, Quality, which dualistic reason has in the past tended to conceal. (284)

The discussion about Quality occupies the thrust of the book and the narrator’s preoccupation. He argues at length that defining Quality would subordinate it to rationalist thought and dissection, so he leaves it undefined. But the larger point is to remove the layer of rationalist thought that we usually rely upon and instead be guided by a more nebulous internal intuition and direction (Quality).

Why can’t we see the solution? The filters inculcated into our minds by society about how to think, interpret, and go about problems need to be cleared out. You have to clear your mind of all this baggage and begin to see things in a more raw form. This clearing of the mind allows you to behold the facts and details of the problem that you may have overlooked previously.

The narrator elaborates:

Now finally let’s get back to that screw.

Let’s consider a reevaluation of the situation in which we assume that the stuckness now occurring, the zero of consciousness, isn’t the worst of all possible situations, but the best possible situation you could be in. After all, it’s exactly this stuckness that Zen Buddhists go to so much trouble to induce; through koans, deep breathing, sitting still and the like. Your mind is empty, you have a “hollow-flexible” attitude of “beginner’s mind.” You’re right at the front end of the train of knowledge, at the track of reality itself. Consider, for a change, that this is a moment to be not feared but cultivated. If your mind is truly, profoundly stuck, then you may be much better off than when it was loaded with ideas.

The solution to the problem often at first seems unimportant or undesirable, but the state of stuckness allows it, in time, to assume its true importance. It seemed small because your previous rigid evaluation which led to the stuckness made it small.

But now consider the fact that no matter how hard you try to hang on to it, this stuckness is bound to disappear. Your mind will naturally and freely move toward a solution. Unless you are a real master at staying stuck you can’t prevent this. The fear of stuckness is needless because the longer you stay stuck the more you see the Quality-reality that gets you unstuck every time. What’s really been getting you stuck is the running from the stuckness through the cars of your train of knowledge looking for a solution that is out in front of the train.

Stuckness shouldn’t be avoided. It’s the psychic predecessor of all real understanding. An egoless acceptance of stuckness is a key to an understanding of all Quality, in mechanical work as in other endeavors. It’s this understanding of Quality as revealed by stuckness which so often makes self-taught mechanics so superior to institute-trained men who have learned how to handle everything except a new situation. (285-86)

Bringing the discussion back to AI, if we troubleshoot using prediction machines, the solutions we conceive of will be predictable, cliché, and formulaic. They will be the obvious attempts from mediocre thinking. We’ll end up putting our foot into the same set of footprints to trod the same worn paths, leading to the same dead-end destinations.

For many tasks, this might be fine. Let’s say you’re not a developer, and you want a simple script to achieve some perfunctory task. There’s no harm in having AI create the most predictable, obvious solution — especially if this solution is foreign to you. But if you’re an expert in your field, looking to innovate, this kind of predictable thinking may only lead you to dead ends. You need to clear away assumptions so that you can, as Shklovsky says, trace new paths.


I know I’ve covered a lot of ground in this essay. To sum things up, Walker argues that we have to learn to notice our environment using techniques to change our conventional ways of seeing and observing. Shklovsky argues that language becomes dead unless we inject new metaphors and phrases, resurrecting words with new language. Pirsig argues that our many assumptions occlude our understanding of problems we want to solve.

The larger point is that we can change what we see, experience, understand, etc., about the world around us, but doing so isn’t easy. We have to pause and ask questions, avoid relying too much on machines that only tell the most predictable answers, and actively work to avoid automatically embracing anticipated, conditioned points of view. As more of our life becomes directed by prediction algorithms, these techniques help us retain what makes us creative humans.

Works cited

Pirsig, Robert. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. William Morrow & Company, Inc. New York: 1974, 1999. 25th Anniversary Edition.

Shklovsky, Viktor. Viktor Shklovsky: A Reader. Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2017.

Walker, Rob. The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday.. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2019.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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