Periodically you see posted signs with large type, bolded lettering at the top: NOTICE! Sometimes this lettering is underlined or italicized in an attempt to raise it from mere prominence to attention-grabbing radiance. The sign writer seems to believe that this simple written command will seduce its reader into paying extra attention to the message. Every now and then it even works; but when it does, commanding attention is the least of the posting. There is usually also an action component. NOTICE: report finding lost items to campus police. NOTICE: The Astronomy Club is looking for new members, inquire with ______ (president) or _______ (faculty advisor).

Paying attention to things around you is a good idea in general. But understanding the implications of what you’re seeing and then ACTING on those implication is even better. Simply “noticing” is not enough. One of the best examples of the difference between noticing a fact and understanding a fact I’ve seen so far is within one of the first few chapters (chapter 4, I think) of Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. The scene I refer to is when Delauney asks Phedre to describe what she’d observed about the carriage and horses she’d just arrived in. She gives a very good description of them and thought herself very observant when Delauney praised her. Then Delauney asks Alcuin (who’d only seen the horse and carriage long enough for Phedre and Delauney to disembark and Delauney to pay the driver) to describe what he’d observed. Instead of describing the physicality of the horses and carriage, he describes that the unmarked carriage meant a livery stable, that matched white horses were rare and thus valuable (so that the stable was probably prosperous), that the driver had the mannerisms of someone country-bred but had been in the city long enough “not to bite the coin given by a gentleman”, and thus it would not be too difficult to trace the coachman if he needed to be questioned.

The more information you have in your mind, the easier and faster it is to do this. Also the ability to make connections between multiple disciplines is a good skill to train. (For instance: The reason why stars are dimmer than our sun follows the same principle why we do not bleed out every time our heart beats.) It’s one reason I love learning. Every time I find a connection between disciplines, I feel like I’ve pulled a gem from a bog. This is what I try to impart in my “running woman” exercise.

I’d been trying to get my students to think in this manner for many years before Kushiel’s Dart was published. I’d been giving my students a simplified example and asking them to come up with possible scenarios for what they see. I start with something like: “You see a woman running. What’s going on?” I usually address newer students first and rarely get anything other than “She’s running from someone.” Occasionally, I get “She’s out exercising.” Given that the “running woman” exercise is done in the context of a martial arts or self-defense class, the answers are understandable. If no one asks clarifying questions, I start adding details: “She’s dressed in slacks and a nice blouse.” There goes the out for a jog explanation.  “She doesn’t look back and her head is up.” Probably not running from someone. And so on. Depending on how quick the students are, I may end with “She has nothing in her hands, but everyone else on the street is carrying a closed umbrella.” If they need something a little more obvious, I throw in “The sky is filled with low, black rainclouds.” So instead of running from danger, she is trying to get home before she gets soaked. Depending on the level of interest and the number of light bulbs I see going off above people’s heads, I take it further into possible habits and thinking patterns.

Unfortunately, this sometimes gets me into trouble. As a very shy extrovert (not really a contradiction), I spend a lot of time around people without directly interacting with them. I also tend to score very high on empathy. Since I tend to think in sensations rather than words, it’s not difficult for me to see someone in distress and get “sympathy pangs”. It’s also very easy for me to get sucked into their problems. This is one reason I’m not a therapist despite many people telling me I have a talent for making people feel comfortable and safe; until I get these responses under conscious control, I would get burned out too fast be of use to anyone. I recently told someone, “If I see someone in distress, I can’t not respond.” As I said, seeing, understand, and responding sometimes gets me into trouble.

Seeing a NOTICE! sign, or posting one, is all well and good, but it is rarely sufficient to the underlying reason why the sign was posted in the first place. A notice sign calls for understanding and action. A paper posted on a bulletin board is usually about a matter simple enough to understand and act upon. But paper notices aren’t the only notice signs out there. Many of those notice signs are hidden beneath other things, and in order to see them you have to understand the implications of what you’re seeing on the surface. “Reading between the lines” is often hard enough in print. Graduating from the two dimensional of text on a page (or screen) to the four dimensional world of life is much harder, but it can be done.