How is an Artist Like TV’s Columbo?
Do you remember how people were bingeing TV shows like The Sopranos or Mad Men during those long pandemic days and nights? Well, I was also bingeing–but on that old television chestnut, Columbo. If you’ve never watched it, Columbo is a detective murder mystery show, but…it’s an anti-whodunnit. The show always opens with all of us witnessing the villain committing the crime (off-camera—which is much appreciated by the squeamish). It’s a unique formula for a detective show because we know right from the get-go who the killer is. The audience watches Peter Falk as Detective Lt. Columbo, guilelessly but cunningly noticing clues, making connections, and solving the case, all the while hilariously pestering the murderer to distraction.
The murderer underestimates Columbo at first because he seems a bit scatterbrained and befuddled. But under that tattered old gray floppy coat lies the heart of a chess mastermind: a calm and friendly genius who is casually moving all the pieces on the board until you’re shocked to learn he’s placed you in checkmate, using only a pawn. Columbo notices everything—Was there a contact lens glinting in that green shag carpet? Was that aging movie star from the golden age of cinema spry enough to climb down a tree from a second story window and disturb a single flower? (Shout out to the great Janet Leigh in Forgotten Lady.) It’s these hidden yet powerful powers of noticing that carry him through each episode to solve the case, always with a humble wave and a self-effacing smile.
The book, Wired to Create by Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire, tells us that artists have “leaky” brains and low filters that make us particularly open to experience. Artists, more than non-artists, filter out less of our environment as we go about our daily lives. For example, a non-artist might pop over to the cafe for a morning coffee. Because their brain files this activity under “mundane task,” nothing in particular is noticed. The filter in their brain is functioning perfectly; they enjoy the coffee and move on.
An artist, on the other hand, has a brain that does not classify things as “mundane” as ruthlessly or as often. Our artist brains have the ability to see the world as new and sparkly, even while doing the most ordinary thing for the umpteenth time. Take this scenario: A non-artist and an artist both visit the same pet food store. The non-artist picks up a case of kibble and off they go, immediately forgetting an unremarkable event. In contrast, we artists will perform the same kibble-buying activity, but our brains won’t filter out this experience as forgettable. We might notice the white, shimmering circular reflection of a hub cap on the pavement in the parking lot, or a long-forgotten dingy rubber ducky that dangles from a string under the awning. Who hung that dangling duck? And, why? I’m still wondering about it.
In Wired to Create, Kaufman and Gregoire tell us about a research study by Barnaby Nelson and David Rawling that looked at 100 artists in music, visual arts, theater, and literature to find out if creative people were more “open to experience.” And their findings were that this condition was “the single strongest and most consistent personality trait that predicts creative achievement.” They go on to say that open-to-experience types tend to be imaginative, curious, perceptive, creative, artistic, thoughtful, and intellectual. The unique ability of creative brains to not pre-categorize incoming sensory information as “irrelevant” is kind of a superpower. “Reduced Latent Inhibition” (or for our purposes, let’s call it “Notice-y-ness”) is a characteristic of a person whose brain allows a higher level of information to enter their field of awareness. You notice more, because you’re more curious, imaginative, and perceptive. And you’re more curious, imaginative and perceptive because you notice more. Our creative brains are leaky. They take in a lot and crosslink a wide variety of seemingly disparate things, allowing for more unpredictable connections and ideas.
Let’s visit Columbo again. He’s puffing on a cigar that is a disturbing shade of green. He’s carrying around an old basset hound named “Dog” like a sack of potatoes and plopping him down in his old gray convertible: a Peugeot 403. He’s playing it cool with a revenge-mad gangster’s widow and staging fake funerals to bust her and her poisoned lemon marmalade. He’s noticing 1000 times the things that everyone else (including the criminal) is noticing. And, in a jiffy, the gangster’s wife is off to prison for attempted murder by breakfast spread.
As we go through our day, it’s important to honor our “notice-y-ness” when we experience it. Let’s let our inner Columbos out to find the clues that will lead to new pathways in our work. Maybe we’re driving our kid to school, or we’re headed to the grocery store. Look out for those moments: subtle little nudges from our subconscious that are so easy to ignore if we have our filter set to “high.” Let’s train ourselves to notice what we notice and give that little moment of recognition or curiosity a chance.
And, in the spirit of Columbo, I’ll leave you with…just one more thing.
The Wired to Create authors detail a famous 2007 social experiment conducted by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post. An average looking guy in a baseball cap and white t-shirt set up next to a trash can in the Washington D.C. subway and began playing his violin. Little did the thousands of people passing by know, but this humble subway busker was none other than the famous musician, Joshua Bell. And he was playing one of the most difficult violin pieces in the world: Bach’s Chaconne on one of the most valuable instruments in the world: a 3.5-million-dollar Stradivarius. A hidden camera recorded that only seven adults stopped to listen (most passed by without a second glance). However, the camera also revealed that every single child who passed by stopped to watch Bell perform. Fun fact: Earlier that week, audiences had paid $100 to hear him play at a sold-out concert in Boston.
Those seven adults and all the kids were…Us. We are the people who walk through a world of magic every day, bemused that everyone else is too busy or closed off to notice. We don’t mean to brag, but we are the world detectives, all-seeing eyes and Poet Laureates of the seemingly inconsequential. Absolutely nothing gets by us.
Stay notice-y, my friends.
Special thanks to Jennifer Coates for her contribution of the term “notice-y-ness” for this piece.
About the writer: Amy Talluto is a multimedia artist working in painting, sculpture and collage who lives in Upstate NY and hosts a podcast called “Pep Talks for Artists.” This written piece can be listened to as an audio essay in podcast form, as well as many others on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or anywhere you get your podcasts. Amy Talluto’s monthly column “Whisperings from the Wormhole” will bring you artist-to-artist pep talks with topics ranging from self-doubt to artists who make work in their kitchens.