Friday, April 27, 2018

Observation Skills

“With our limited senses and consciousness, we only glimpse a small portion of reality." 
Robert Greene

In the story “The Hounds of the Baskervilles,” Sherlock Holmes states that “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes." Imagine being able to see what Sherlock Holmes sees. What would it be like to be hyper-observant? Seeing things that few others see. Experiencing events at such a dynamic level that every fiber of your being is engaged. 

There is no doubt that our everyday lives would be improved if we could enhance our observation skills. Most of us would be happy just being generally more aware, but imagine if you developed your observation skills to the level where you could appreciate art, music, and relationships at peak performance levels…so much more completely than you ever thought possible. Is this not the definition of being truly alive?

The question is, “how do we learn observation skills”?

First we must make the distinction between improved general awareness, often called “situational awareness” and specific awareness, referred to as being “hyper-observant” …which is what we are talking about here.

With training and practice we can certainly improve our situational awareness of the events that are happening around us. Being more aware is not really difficult when you consider that most of us are so self-absorbed that we go through our day in a complete mental fog, oblivious to almost everything happening around us. Observation skill training tends to help us cut through this fog… it’s like suddenly awakening from a semi-comatose state. We will explore “situational awareness” in future blogs.   

There is no doubt that improved situational awareness will have a huge impact on the quality of your life, but to really get the full experience from events we must become specifically aware - “hyper-observant”, and to do this we have to focus on a specific event. Psychologist call this having a “frame of reference.” In addition, you must purposely focus on the event with single minded intentionality. In other words, you must be aware that you are aware. Armed with a “frame of reference” and “intentionality”, there is one more ingredient required…you must know specifically what you are going to observe before the event.

To understand how the brain processes information from the five senses, we must realize that it is being constantly bombarded with thousands of sensory inputs every minute. However, as the brain can only process 30 to 40 items at one time, it tends to filter out the rest. Most of the allowed sensory inputs are unconsciously selected for basic self-preservation. Because of this, we simply can't observe everything all the time. However, with training we can alter the brain’s filters to recognize input from our senses other than just those required for basic functioning and safety; but, this requires conscious effort...we must task the brain to be on the lookout for something specific. In other words, we must actively tell our brains what we are looking for...the more accurate we describe this the better the chances that we will be able to observe it.

Using tracker training as an example… the core skill in tracking is the ability to see “disturbances.”  As a result, a lot of tracker training focuses on developing observation skills. In our “Basic Track Aware” course we introduce students to an exercise called “micro-framing.” While on their first line of sign, the instructor will place an 8 x 10-inch frame (think empty picture frame) over a track and have the students assume the prone position to closely study what is inside the frame. The instructor starts by pointing out the most obvious disturbances, then has the students (three students per line of sign) take turns pointing out three disturbances each – until everything that can be seen has been studied. The idea is to continue finding smaller anomalies up to the very edge of visual acuity…which is surprisingly small (micro). This exercise is repeated for two or three consecutive tracks and can take up to an hour.

On completion, the students are able to observe disturbances that they would not have been able to see prior to the “micro-framing” exercise. There is no magic here…everything within the 8 x10-inch frame became the focus, (frame of reference) and the task of finding every disturbance, (intentionality) created an environment that modified the brain’s sensory filters. Once in place, the student can “see” disturbances whether up close and framed or while tracking a line of sign. Like most things, this skill just gets better with practice.     

The exciting part about "hyper-observant" training is that once the skills have been acquired, the outcomes can be life changing. The interesting thing is that there is a distinct carry over from “seeing sign” while tracking to being more aware in everyday life. Keep in mind that the "micro framing" exercise is just one of many ways to improve observation skills. However, it is a relatively quick and easy way to demonstrate how hyper-observation skills can be developed and used. The bottom line is that depending on your aptitude and training, you can make substantial positive changes in your life by improving your observation skills.

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