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LostInParadise's avatar

Can people be trained to be more observant?

Asked by LostInParadise (23624points) October 15th, 2012

I for one am terribly unobservant. I amaze myself by obvious things I notice about places only after visiting 3 or 4 times. I once took a trip with a bunch of birders who were able to spot birds in the distance that I could only make out with a pair of binoculars after being very specifically directed to the location.

Is power of observation something that people are born with? I have never seen a course for it. Our data dominated culture may not put much of a premium on the skill. I can get by dealing with computer programs, though I would never make it as an Indian scout or a naturalist.

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10 Answers

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

I used to hunt a lot. I think that degree of interaction with nature might help might help you become more observant. You don’t need to do it with a gun, use a camera. But you sit out looking for prey and it will sharpen your skills a bunch.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

GQ. Like you, I am not the most observant person, at least when it comes to certain areas. I wonder if these three factors may be involved:
1.) It seems to come naturally for some people. Can others learn this skill? I think so. It just takes effort to stay focused.

2.) It may depend upon our interests. My partner enjoys walking through his home town with me as I point out little things that he has never really noticed before. A friend will comment on another person’s outfit, and I’ll think, “Gee, I just spent an hour in a meeting with her, and I have no clue what she was wearing.” (This may be where your birding example may fit.)

3.) I wonder if we allow our lives to become so filled with tasks that our thoughts are constantly jumping to the next one. If so, then we lose focus on what we are currently doing.

marinelife's avatar

I have been unofficially training my husband to be more observant. No one would call him observant now, but he is much more than when we got married.

It is possible to learn to pay attention to your surroundings. Challenge yourself to notice one new thing everywhere you go.

thorninmud's avatar


Your unconscious mind is extremely observant. It mobilizes a form of attention psychologists call “open monitoring”, which is a diffuse global awareness of evreything in one’s surroundings, as well as internal states. When it picks up on something that merits your conscious attention, it mobilizes a focused “beam” of attention that puts the object of the attention at the forefront of your conscious awareness.

Even when this focused attention is locked onto a target, open monitoring continues in the background. But it can take a stimulus of considerable energy to break that focused attention away from its current target so that the other stimulus gets noticed.

When nothing in the environment is engaging our focus, the spotlight of focused attention gravitates toward thoughts. These can be a target of attention just as any of our sensory stimuli can. When attention is locked onto thought, environmental stimuli have a hard time competing for the focus. There’s a story about Robert Oppenheimer parking at a romantic spot with a date, excusing himself to go for a walk so he could ponder a physics problem, then walking home and going to bed, completely forgetting about the car and his date.

So one key to observation is learning how to release focused attention from a target, so that it becomes more nimble and responsive to signals from open monitoring. In practical terms, this means learning how to disengage from the stream of thought so that you can more fully open up to the environment.

Another factor is letting go of expectations. Expectations of what there is to see have a powerful effect on what we do (and don’t) see. The less we think we already know about a situation, the more open we will be to what is actually there.

Relevant: The invisible gorilla experiment

ucme's avatar

Whassat you say?

CWOTUS's avatar

Good question.

I believe that “observation skills” can be taught, just like “critical thinking” can be taught. It’s difficult sometimes, for example, to rise above the status of “passive observer” (as we tend to be, for example, when we watch television) and think critically of exactly what we are hearing and seeing to determine when some of the things presented just don’t add up. It can be a good use of “TV time” to watch some dramatic shows with an active “spot the lie” mindset. It might ruin the story, but it can help you to improve your own thinking ability.

In the example you gave, for one case, it would help to know about the habits of the birds in question. Do they prefer to nest and observe from deep foliage, or do they prefer solitary perches above all surroundings, such as hawks and eagles? Knowing that helps you to focus on “where would that bird be?” and look at and for those places. You’re more likely to find the bird if you know where to look better than just “over there somewhere”.

Sunny2's avatar

You can train yourself to be more observant if you wish to. I have ADD and when I realized I often interrupted conversations of others, I made myself think before I spoke and was able to stop doing that. I rarely notice what anyone is wearing, because it’s not important to me, but I notice all kinds of things like the shape of a leaf, the color of a flower. I hear and recognize many bird calls. Being able to “find” birds is a matter of finding details in busy background, like those detailed pictures children are given and then asked to find different figures within the pictures.

Coloma's avatar

Yes, it is called “mindfulness.” Catching oneself and becoming aware that you are not aware. haha

flutherother's avatar

You notice what you have an interest in. An ornithologist will notice the birds, a geologist the rocks and a meteorologist the skies. Alternatively, you may be lost in your own thoughts and hardly notice anything at all. I am sure observation can be trained and developed through practise.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

If you would like to improve your powers of observation, take a course in sketching: landscapes, cityscapes, and people. You will quickly find out why artists pick up so intensely on shape, texture, color variations, people, objects, locations, dimentions, etc.—all the qualities of things that make up our physical world. Train yourself to rapidly capture your surroundings like a sketch artist. Since taking art courses, my subliminal observations have greatly improved.

What we’re talking about here is Situational Awareness. SA is also taught in self-defense courses. The best manuals on SA come out of the military and the police academy. You might find them on the net or even at the Army/Navy Surplus store.

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