Learning to see

The point is not only what you see but how you look at, from the smaller details of everyday life to the wider macro-systems. Let’s start from a very simple game everyone knows: looking at a spot and trying to see something on it, for example on clouds or ink stains. It’s a specific human skill, called pareidolia, meaning the tendency to perceive a recognizable shape on visual stimulus with an undefined form. However, ten persons will probably see ten different things in the same spot: it’s almost obvious and yet interesting, the proof that we constantly project some parts of ourselves on the world so that our perception has always got a “relational”, not objective, quality.

You can also unusually frame a picture and then look for a title. I like using leaves and shadows, but you can start from whatever you want.
For example, how would you title the picture below: the sun on the grass, a leaf in the sun or the house of shadows? What is the focus, the center around which the sense is created? Each answer could be right but the connected perception is very different.

Now take a peek from the windows of the box below: what’s inside? Try to imagine and draw the hidden object. It would be funny to compare many drawings, each different from the other and from the real object.⁣ Simple but not granted, it often concerns also other aspects of normal life, for example a discussion where you think that your idea is absolutely the only right one.

In his book The Will to Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy, Viktor E. Frankl uses the metaphor of ortoghonal projections for explaining the complementarity of the different disciplines, that are not mutually exclusive. All the points of view together can give us “a good enough” description of the object of study, by the interation of different specific focuses and approaches. How the unity of the object – Frankl wonders – can be preserved through its different, equally true, repesentations? The difference between a rectangle (frontal view) and a circle (top view) can not contradict the existence one cylinder!


What is said for vision is also true for knowledge, he wrote. We live in an age of specialists: men who no longer see the forest of truth because of single trees. Of course we cannot turn the wheel of history back, society cannot do without specialists… So what is the real danger? Are we sure it lies in a lack of universality? Isn’t it rather hidden in the claim to totality? What is dangerous is the attempt by an expert, such as a biologist or a psycologist, to explain a human being solely in biological or psychological terms.

Some years ago I had the chance to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Gerusalem. I was nicely speaking in Italian with a very welcoming monk in the Franciscan part of the Church. Around us, as in a labyrinth, there were many other chapels dedicated to different kind of Christianities, and outside the Church, many other Churches, Mosques and Synagogues all around. At some point, it was like I saw our two figures from afar and I got the impression to be inside a box that was inside another box, in turn surrounded by other ones. Each box had many windows, of different sizes and shapes, open on different shining details of whatever we call God – as limited still valuable attempts to glimpse something too wide for any overview. What amazing, prismatic picture from up there, fragmented and unified in the same time!


Now let’s imagine we are looking together through the same window: again, we would not see exactly the same picture. Our culture and language, our family and personal experiences, are all like overlapped filters through which we necessarily look at. Most of these lens are essential parts of us. Even while using our knowledge and theories for interpreting the world, we are metaphorically wearing a special pair of glasses through which we look at.
I find that all these visual metaphors can become interesting tools for playing with children and investigating important concepts: changing points of view, focusing on a detail and then enlarging the picture for seeing where the detail is placed, wearing glasses of somebody else and lending yours.

Wooden glasses made with resin lenses and a special carving technique for curving the temples – Design by Francesco Bombardi

If you are aware to have several pairs of glasses available, you can choose the most useful one for every context, from time to time, maybe getting closer to the truth. Of course we need to take a stand, but far from making it inflexible. Let’s learn how to switch, not confusing one part for the whole and using our understanding for not getting trapped in it.


Finally… My heartfelt thanks to Nona Orbach, Eylon Orbach, Shari Satran and the unknown, gentle Franciscan monk, for the unforgettable Gerusalem journey we lived together. I can imagine Nona smiling while seeing “the Italian glasses” I used for writing this post.

Making connections is a creative process

making connections

Where do you start when there are too many things to say, organize, write, explain? Which starting point ensures the best route through all the stages? Any point is ok if we consider those things significant, as they are implicitly connected by our own network of meanings. So there will be no risk of losing any on the way, we can interchangeably switch between them. And if we forget one, it probably was not so important.

The possible connections between things are potentially endless. Let’s look at this image (copied by an illustrious master I will soon reveal) as a visual metaphor. In how many ways, with how many shapes can we connect the red dots?

Of course, if there were more points, the number of possible connections would increase. But the real question is: could a larger number of points help us to create connections? In other words: is the quantity of points (or initial data) a relevant variable for our ability to create relations between them?

The French matematician Henri Poincaré defined creativity as the capacity to join scattered elements in new and useful combinations. Thus, the question could also be as follows: does the quantity of starting elements influence the quality of the creative process? As educators interested in the development of creativity, do we wonder about the quantity of stimuli we present to children?

We could also use this graphical tool to visualize the underlying relational patterns of a group. An image can often help us to focus on some aspects of which we were not fully aware: for example, the existence of subgroups, an isolated element, the closure or opening of the structure towards the outside… The representations of the group made by its members will probably be different from each other: common denominators may emerge, as well as individual specificities.

Since these are images, we should not forget the importance of their visual characteristics, of the tools we use for design them. The color, the shapes, the type of line, the disposition and proportions in space: all these features evoke some qualities of the connective structure. Do you see thin, flickering threads traced with a pencil or the strong, massive sign of a permanent marker? A thick and intricate network of angular lines or fluid overlapping areas of watercolor?

Each person will find a different way to connect the same points: in other words, considering the same set of things (or the same items of a problem as well), everyone will “see” different connective shapes. What better metaphor for reminding us that our vision is not the only possible one but one among many possibilities? How does our representation relate to the other ones?

Now it’s time to reveal the author that inspired me these thoughts with his work: “Flight of fancy” is a small, light, precious book by Bruno Munari, published by Corraini Edizioni. The cover of the book has got some pierced points so that readers can continue the game over and over.

In his book “Fantasia”, Bruno Munari develops a similar exploration with a leaf, trying to make its hidden relationships visible, as you can see in his drawing below.

Starting from the tracing of an oak leaf, Munari drew its outline and got out of it a pattern made up of dots. Then he has connected these points in many different ways, creating different relationships between them.

Everyone will find their own shapes but always in relation to the leaf.

We could play the same connection-game with many shapes. For example, the graphic designer Serena Moundrouvalis created a template of starting points for inventing stars. The possible variations are infinite!

Could we apply the same awarness and research of connections in different fields than the visual one? Through some illustrated cards, called Metafore della conoscenza, Donata Fabbri and Alberto Munari (the son of Bruno Munari) invite us to discover the visual metaphors through which we organize and connect our thoughts: is it a labyrinth? Or a tree? A palace full of rooms? How is the visual representation connected to our way of thinking?

Another suitable field for playing with this “connections-game” is the story-telling and the narrative thinking, as connections between characters, things, places form the essence of every story.

This reminds me something I loved to do when I was a child. I cut out figures from magazines and put them in a bag. When I wanted to play, I randomly took out one at a time, put it on the table and gradually invent a story. I think I was designing ever-changing connections between those figures.

It works not only with cutout figures but also with every kind of objects and stuff, like fabrics, leaves, tickets, material fragments, memories, or even words. For example, how could you give value to some pieces of paper as they were precious remains and then combine them for inventing a story?

What other ways of creating connections do you know and use? You are welcome to share for enriching this list… The more connections we can create the more we can choose. Even when the elements we have seem to be few or not interesting, it is the quality of the relationship that can make a difference.

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