Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Visual Training System

Dr. Braverman
One day about 15 years ago, Dr. Irwin Braverman, Professor Emeritus of Dermatology at Yale University, was conducting grand rounds. At Yale, dermatology grand rounds consisted of the evaluation of patients who presented with diagnostic or therapeutic puzzles. The doctors seeing the patients may view them but not question them. A resident later presents their cases and the cases are discussed. Dr. Braverman noticed that the ability to describe what was seen needed improvement. It occurred to him that if he were to ask someone to describe an object that was foreign, the viewer wouldn’t know what was important or unimportant and would describe everything. This was an aspect of visualization that could be worked on.

Dr. Braverman began a teaching program in which each week he took a group of dermatology residents to a museum on a regular basis and asked them to describe what they saw in paintings. He found that after several weeks of looking for pertinent features in works of art and having to describe them, the doctors began to do a better job describing what they were seeing.

The program then expanded to include medical students, and eventually Dr. Braverman showed that the students in his teaching groups improved their observational skill significantly. His course became de rigueur. Other medical schools also adopted the program.  This course has a great medical application, since it improves diagnostic skills, but it has other applications as well.

John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Madame X
An enterprising woman, Amy Herman at the Frick Collection, ran with the idea and introduced the course to Cornell University. She went one step further and convinced the New York Police Department that their detectives would benefit from this training, too.

After this, Herman has been able to pass on her wisdom to others in the law enforcement field, including the Secret Service and, on a visit to London, the Metropolitan Police of Scotland Yard.

What I know about interpreting artwork has been gleaned completely from following the footsteps of Sister Wendy Beckett as she wandered through many of the world’s major museums in her BBC specials. She is an expert at explaining not only the art but also the artists and the story or idea depicted on the canvas or in marble.

I was always amazed at how she interpreted the emotions on the faces in the pictures, and that is how she brought the scenes to life. Can you tell which of these mourners painted on the wall of the tomb of Ramose II is the eldest and most likely the chief mourner? Hint: perky vs. droopy.

What would a detective see in these paintings? Each of them portrays some sort of crime. Would there be anomalies or clues?

Artemisia Gentileschi

In this dramatic scene taken from the Bible, Judith has beheaded an enemy general, Holofernes. Are we certain that she used the sword on her shoulder? While there is plenty of blood dripping from the head in the basket that Judith had the foresight to bring (as well as a maid to carry it), there is no blood on the weapon.

Murder or misadventure?


The seemingly serene housewife in the window presents an innocent appearance. What makes me think she is mixing a little foxglove into the peas? The two-handed approach is a little unusual.

What is that instrument in her left hand?

Edvard Munch

Is this just a floozie enjoying the evening with a smirking fool who knows he's onto a sure thing, or is she a prostitute? There is no money on the table, but what do you think?

Van Gogh

This is a definite case of Grievous Bodily Harm and the main clue that it might not be self-induced is that a person who is fastidious enough to wear a matching coat and hat would not disfigure himself in such an obvious way.

I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Perhaps, but she is not in a courtroom; she appears to be practicing in front of a mirror holding a composition notebook instead of a Bible. The crime—Perjury!

Something dreadful has happened to this girl. The body language and the location make that clear. My guess would be sexual assault.

Edward Hopper

I hope my boss sitting in the background can't see where I am going to put this check. It is late, the shadows lengthen and I am not getting any younger. There is no one on the street and no one in my life, I am going to Tenerife.

Do they extradite for embezzlement?

Sacré bleu I left my curling iron on! Arson!

I interpret the clues in this last case to be suction cups and a surgical mask. There has been a brutal beating resulting in death or maybe this may be the untoward effects of a vigorous CPR.

The problem is that we usually see what we want to see. Dan Brown used this effect in his books, like The Da Vinci Code, when he used the power of suggestion to encourage readers to see things in paintings that would uphold his basic premise. If you looked at the paintings yourself, his hints fell on deaf ears (blind eyes?).

In this painting by Bellini, Madonna del Prato, it appears to be the usual mother and child portrait. But wait––could the baby be dead? Is this a form of Pietà forecasting the future of the child? You decide.


  1. MC, fun reading with my morning coffee.

    I think the thunderstruck young man has just been accused of killing his lover and he didn't even know she was dead. Nikki

  2. It cameo my attention that what I took to be a female figure in the shower has MAN arms and maybe feet.

    This is a good example of seeing what you want to see. My grandson age six, who is now working on trying to pronounce his new favorite phrase 'Sacré bleu' noted the arms. He also enjoyed imagining what the astonished man was thinking and I hope his teacher won't mind him saying 'sock my blur' every so often.

  3. Definitely a guy in the shower, trying to hold his head together. Maybe up late boozin and brawlin and now trying to sober up for work? The shower is clean, so maybe not his own apartment.

  4. Maybe the clean shower made me think the figure was a girl! I am feeling less foolish now. Thanks.

  5. Regarding the figure in the shower: Look closely. What are the patches of dark on the back and arm closest to us? I think it's hair. It's a full moon outside, and this poor guy is turning into a werewolf in his girlfriend's shower. I hope she's prepared.

  6. You might be right Georgette. If you look closely at the nails on the one visible hand they are sprouting out of somewhat bulbous distal phalanges and they are claw-like. I missed a lot in this painting.