People of a certain age will remember the Look and Learn magazine for children, revealing magic and mystery in beautiful illustrations and accompanying text that gave us a periscope with which to see and understand the world around us.
Learning to look, as children, via the finger drawing of a parent or teacher as they unveil stories and mysteries, brings the fuzz of unformed understanding, slowly into focus. We are hungry for more, grasping at new pictures and colours and strange things as they are explained into a collage of reality. The neurons in our little brains are firing and sparking with every new connection. We see something, look at it hard, ask a nearby adult for enlightenment and what we glean transforms it into part of our growing mental landscape. We compile a compendium of knowledge based on observation and information and what transpires in our blossoming minds is deeper understanding and appreciation.
And then unless we become research scientists or art students we forget to look. Really ‘looking’ in a questioning and probing way is an art in itself, one that can be learned or indeed relearned. But why do we need to? Because when we actively observe (and translate what we see in) people, place, activities we learn not to jump to conclusions, not to judge, to compare, to idolize, to discriminate, to abuse, to terrorize. We increase our abilities to become better communicators, team players, leaders, entrepreneurs, partners, parents, and friends. In short when we are able to quickly read a situation and come up with a theory that explains it, we become better people, more able to relate to others.
What is observation? “The mind is particularly sensitive to changes or differences. This is of use in scientific observation, but what is more important and more difficult, is to observe (in this instance mainly a mental process) resemblances or correlations between things that on the surface appeared quite unrelated.” The Art of Scientific Investigation (public library; public domain) by Cambridge University animal pathology professor W. I. B. Beveridge
Active observation, being mindful of our surroundings, is how we make sense of things; it’s an incredibly valuable tool. Imagine you are having problems with your boss at work. Normally a pretty congenial guy, as you’ve noticed over time, suddenly he is flying off the handle at the slightest thing. Confused, but mindful of keeping your job, you don’t fling back a plethora of pithy and frankly, witty responses, but instead hold onto your hat, sit back to ride the storm and watch; trying to figure out what the hell is going on. You notice he’s distracted, staring into his coffee cup, his fingers drumming the table, he fidgets, he jumps up, paces. A female colleague walks in to ask a question on standards and ethics and he lets rip with a barrage of, fortunately, incomprehensible expletives. She backs out under the tsunami of abuse. He slumps in his chair. Then he turns the photo of his wife face down onto his desk. Bingo. Now you get what’s going on. Noticing the subtle cues you can react to situations more subtly. You understand that he’s going through his own private nightmare, and you become less judgmental, more patient, and may even decide to offer a shoulder to cry on.
By taking the time to observe, without judgment, bias, preference or prejudice, by using your previous knowledge, by noticing changes, you can begin to unravel the mysterious, unlock the problem and with your naturally creative and critical thinking skills, you take the consequent correlations and connections, and begin to form understanding. And from there we can start to find solutions.
How can we cultivate it? Like any habit worth forming the ability to observe and make deductions can be improved with deliberate practice. With a creative-thinking, engaged and enquiring mind, the power of observation can be developed by cultivating habits of watching. To writers, artists, scientists and private investigators, ‘people-watching’ is as important as practicing scales is to a pianist. But who can’t sit on a bus or tube or in a café and take a few minutes each day to focus outwardly at the world around them, and learn from the interactions, the expressions, the movements, the textures and shades of human life. There is no one-way or right way to do it. Two people can visit an art gallery together; one will peer and investigate every picture in minute detail, the other will wander into each gallery space, scan the walls in a broad-brush fashion and only hone in on the work that jumps out at them. Then they approach the piece and examine it with as much stealth as a scientist at her microscope. What are we looking for when we are drawn to a painting? We look at the brush strokes, the colours, the shapes, the composition, but we also search for the story, the emotion, the meaning. When we pull back and see the painting as a whole once again it is as if we have ‘felt’ it, such is our deeper understanding of what we see. When we ‘get’ it, it resonates with us and somehow we feel better for it.
At Stanford University, they recognize the importance of this and have a created a new medical school course called “The Art of Observation: Enhancing Clinical Skills through Visual Analysis” which links the medical students with peers in the art faculty, and takes them into the art gallery to observe the paintings, often guided by PhD art graduate, and followed by discussions looking at correlations with their own medical studies. One student Sam Cartmell noted: “I was surprised at how strong the impulse was to interpret the work, before I had actually observed the entire piece,” he said. The exercises the instructors led us through, describing what we saw objectively without commentary, really forced me to slow down and really see what was in front of me, without jumping to conclusions or interpretation.”
How can we use observation to lead better lives?
Artist Frederick Franck noted: “We have become addicted to merely looking at things and beings. The more we regress from seeing to looking at the world—through the ever-more-perfected machinery of viewfinders, TV tubes, VCRs, […]—the less we see, the more numbed we become to the joy and the pain of being alive, and the further estranged we become from ourselves and all others.”
By developing our visual sense, our visual literacy we are better able to immerse ourselves in our experience of our surroundings. We spark our imaginations when we notice things. We don’t think in a linear fashion, but instead draw on the network of connections we have created over time. In this way we are better able to value the relationships between us, and the environment, and between us and other people. It is what connects our outer world with our inner selves, and when we feel connected, we feel happier.
We were given five senses but without attention, any one of these is flattened and is as useless as a deflated balloon. Pump up your visual sense and your day becomes a brighter place. Look up from your smart phone, look out at the horizon, or zoom in to the nook and crannies, climb to tallest building and look down at people scurrying like ants, or lie in the grass and watch the clouds turn into faces. Sit with a small child and see what they see, look through the glass into the gorilla enclosure and wonder what those intelligent eyes are conveying, search out all the public art or graffiti in your area and stop for a while to contemplate what the artist was thinking when they made it. Take a walk through a forest and see how the branches twist and turn from one tree to the next, like scribbles in the sky. Tramp along a beach and see how many colours you can count in the pebbles or grains of sand. Peer out of the airplane window when you go on holiday and marvel at the patterns below, then look at the lines on the palms of your hands and see how the DNA of the planet and ourselves are interconnected. Keep a visual journal with you to scribble down what you see, in doodles or notes, and question the make-up of your observations. What more can you learn from what you have seen?
Do you know someone who is struggling to see the colours in their day, for whom the sky is always grey? By working with me as their Coach I can help them tap into their own natural creative thinking skills and start mining for the diamonds beneath their feet. Email me on Lou@createlab.co.uk
Follow Brave New Girl on Twitter @createlab Instagram create_lab and facebook Lou Hamilton www.BraveNewGirl.co.uk