3 Ways to Experience a Scene

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The romantic, analytical, and evocative approaches to viewing a scene.

You’re walking through the forest with a friend. You pass a stream bubbling and curling around a few rocks and think, “That’s nice” and continue on. But your friend has stopped. She’s captivated by the swirling eddy currents. You think again, “Well, it’s nice, but not that nice. Let’s keep going so we can get to the lookout point at the end of the trail!”

You’re wandering through a modern art museum with a friend. You are suddenly halted by a stunning piece. Your head is flooded with ideas and inspiration and you’re fixated. Your friend awkwardly shifts from foot to foot, obviously not seeing what you are.

If you’ve ever experienced situations like these, you’ve probably noticed that people can experience a scene in very different ways. These various modes of experience can form either a source of misunderstanding or a symphony of rich and diverse ways to experience the world. Long stares out bus windows on a recent trip to Thailand, a hike in Los Angeles this weekend, and my recent reading of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance led me to outline three such ways that I experience a scene.

Romantic experience of a scene involves just “taking it all in.” Its the passive process of letting my mind relax and enjoying the sensory experience before it. There’s no attempt to understand or explain; there’s no real attempt to do anything. I derive pleasure from some long series of biochemical reactions that likely evolved to give me a preference for scenes that will somehow increase my survival likelihood (perhaps I enjoy the ocean because if I stay near it, I’ll have access to a great source of shellfish). This is probably the most common way to enjoy a viewpoint at the top of a hike, a new flower in the spring, or a nice sunset.

Analytical experience of a scene involves enjoying the underlying dynamics. Its the active process of recognizing all the processes going on. I seek to understand and explain everything. What sort of fluid dynamics produce those eddy currents in the river? What sort of social processes led homes to be built in those patterns below my airplane window? I derive pleasure from making sense of what’s going on around me, a source of happiness perhaps evolved to since understanding gives a predictive power that would better enable me to make survival decisions. This is a common way to enjoy the game Mousetrap and taking apart electronics, but its also an interesting way to enjoy the natural scenes described above.

Evocative experience of scene is somewhere between classical and romantic. Its the semi-active process of recognizing the objects and processes before me as a similar to other objects and processes I’m familiar with. I let my mind wander a bit as I scan a scene, allowing a wider range of schema to activated in my brain than might normally be. Its sort of a “fuzzy” form of visual recognition. Evocative experience can lead to classical experience (as when the similarities between mountains and the hood of a wrecked pickup truck can lead me to understand plate tectonics) but most often function as an independent game, enjoyable for itself. Evocative experience is somewhat like what happens in your brain when you dream; series of random connections are made in hopes of making interesting connections between seemingly disparate ideas.

Symphony of Experience
Most people are partial to one form and might even look down on those partial to another. For instance, a romantic might see an analyst as “overly technical” and “ruining all the fun” while an analyst might see an evocative as “lazy” or “undirected”.

The richness and diversity of life is impossible to enjoy from just one viewpoint though. There’s a whole symphony of experience in any scene and hearing it means engaging all your modes of experience.