“Seek and Ye Shall Find”: Setting Search Images

By , September 24, 2009

Since moving to the homestead, my search imaging has sharpened considerably as I increase my reliance on it.

Search images are mental pictures humans develop to help them find things. We all use them. We develop search images either by seeing an example of what we want (or wish to avoid) or by imagining it. Choose the make, model, and color of the car you want, and it suddenly appears everywhere! Your search image has been set to seek that particular car. Your images may keep you safe on the city streets, dodging traffic and avoiding harassment while you think of other things. Mine help me live in the forest and on the ocean.

I love to share the story that introduced me to the concept, told by Henry Gee to illustrate search images in his excellent book, In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life. While working with a team of anthropologists in Africa, fossicking among the gravel beds for minute evidence of prehistoric humans—teeth and bone fragments, Meave Leakey played hostess to a famous paleontologist who specialized in land snails. After a few hours trying to help, he complained that he couldn’t figure out how they could find any bones, when all he could see were snail shells. “Snail shells?” his hosts said in surprise. Apparently they had been working in an area full of snail fossils, but looked through them to find the fragments they sought.

This ability tends to keep us alive and out of trouble. It comes in very handy in our way of life.

For instance, as I roam the woods, I feel like a tourist in a strange, new city: I don’t know where to look! My search imaging goes berserk whenever I step outside.

I scan the ground. It’s moose season, so moose nuggets and hoof prints are of primary interest. It’s also mushroom season. My image includes all mushrooms, particularly the varieties that I know to be present and safe to eat. One type, which I’ve just learned is edible, suddenly seems to be everywhere!

We’ve seen lynx sign lately. A lynx is a rare visitor to our area, so its presence is worth noting. Images of bear or coyote and their sign are firmly in place and in play as well.

I scan at eye level and above. We currently need usnea, a wispy tree moss, so I watch for clumps growing within reach. I watch for broken twigs, another moose sign. I look for dead trees to cut for firewood, and for “widow makers,” rotted branches or trees hanging above that might fall unexpectedly. Berries are rare on our peninsula, but there’s a search image for them, too.

I also keep an eye on the extreme close-up to avoid spider webs that span almost every tree gap. They’re uncomfortable to pass through, and never seem visible farther than an inch from one’s face!

Layered over all is a more generalized image: normal conditions. Against this, the unusual or out-of-place contrasts starkly. Litter on our trail is extremely rare, but sometimes appears. We notice footprints from strangers, trail washouts, dog poop, or lost items of value.

Imaging is set without much conscious effort. My interests, desires, fears, and expectations set them. I manipulate them slightly by reminding myself how unlikely it is to see a whole animal all at once. I watch for pieces: a haunch emerging from a thicket, a head silhouetted against the ridge, a glimpse of fur in a darkened grove. Or, most telling, deviations from “normal.”

Expectation often hinders search images. The instinct is so strong we often see what we expect, rather than what’s there. Aly’s search images work better than mine, because she has different expectations. I grew up imagining vague impressions in the dirt to be animal sign. I got corrected often enough that now I generally dismiss my guess automatically. Where I say, “likely not,” she says “likely so,” and seeks clues to back up her assumption. I’ll walk right past a heel mark. She’ll assume it’s a moose print, then verify it with other evidence.

Manipulating search images can help you find what you seek. When consciously setting search images, set them properly—think hard about what you want, and make sure you’re remembering it as it is—not as you think it is.

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