“Brain training” seems to be one of the fads making the rounds lately. At least, I keep seeing ads for brain training apps for our phones and other such things. All of them promise to make you sharper, to improve memory, brain health, and even stave off things like dementia. I’m not entirely sure about those claims, but I do know that for photographers, it is possible to train our brains to see potential photographs.
And this has nothing to do with brain training games, but rather with a specific part of the brain. It’s called the reticular formation, and it has quite a few different tasks like movement, pain modulation and even dictating when we’re alert or asleep.
In particular, one of the key functions of the reticular formation is a process called “habituation.” Habituation is interesting, particularly to photographers, because this is what teaches our brains to ignore repetitive things while remaining alert for important things. So, take a mother as an example. Even though she lives in a busy city, the sounds of traffic going by her home all night long don’t wake her up. That’s because her brain, through habituation, has learned to ignore the sounds of cars. But if the baby cries? That’s important information that her brain has learned to look out for, so she wakes immediately to tend to the baby’s needs.
It’s the same reason why we can fall asleep on the couch through a noisy TV show, but an alarm clock still wakes us up every morning. And it’s why, as we go about our day to day lives, we often don’t take much note of our surroundings. We see them every day, so they become mundane and repetitive. But if something suddenly changes, a new landmark on the way to work, for instance? We take note immediately.
For photographers, knowing about and utilizing this habituation process can be immensely useful. With it, we can actually train ourselves to notice things that might make a worthwhile photograph. We probably all have a few certain photographic triggers, so to speak—things that never fail to make us pause and ponder how we can capture it. For one photographer, it might be something like always noticing interesting cloud formations. Another photographer may always be on the lookout for fog. A third may have trained himself to see stark contrasts—light shining through a doorway into a dark room, for instance.
Most of us have trained ourselves to notice these things unconsciously. That is, over the years, we’ve developed preferences for the things we like to photograph, and those opportunities tend to jump out at us immediately when we see them.
But we can also consciously train ourselves to notice things if we so desire. Maybe you’re looking for ways to broaden your photographic horizons. It could be that you’d like to start taking more architectural photographs, or photographs containing lots of the color blue. It can be whatever you want, and all you need to do is to start consciously making yourself notice these new things you’d like to photograph. Eventually, your mind will take over, the habituation process will kick in, and before too long, you’ll find yourself stopping to see these opportunities without even thinking about it. That’s all it takes! Use habituation to your advantage, and it’ll become habitual for you to notice photo-worthy opportunities.