7 ways to becoming a better observer

In 2008, the television series House was the most-watched program in the world!

Most say its popularity was due to Dr. Gregory House–the character played by actor Hugh Laurie– a character that, in many ways, paralleled the infamous, special, and eccentric Sherlock Holmes. Although Holmes was an investigator and House was an unconventional misanthropic medical genius who led a team of diagnosticians investigating viruses, deadly bacteria and poison, both of these fictional men shared extraordinary skills of observation–uncanny abilities that hooked literary fans for years and most recently, TV viewers of House for eight seasons.

Fiction or reality?
Although these intriguing, captivating characters are only fiction, it is a real possibility that each one of us can become a bit more like them. We can all tune our brains to pay better attention!

We just need some practice.

Up for the challenge?
Although it might sound counterintuitive, one of the best ways we can train ourselves to observe more in the world is to learn what we can ignore! Since it is impossible to pay attention to everything, we have to decide what we want to focus our senses on–all of our senses. Keen observation–noticing–is not just about looking and seeing. It’s about igniting and accessing all the senses.

In his blog post How to Boost Your Observation Skills and Learn to Pay AttentionThorin Klosowski gives us a few challenges that can start to help us do that:

  • Watch people in crowded areas: If the first thing you do when you sit down in a crowded place is pull out your phone, stop. Spend some time taking it all in and watching people. Look at how they act in crowded spaces, how they interact with others, and how they navigate the rush of it all.
  • Assign yourself a scavenger hunt: Pick something and look for it throughout your day. This could be anything–broken windows, security cameras, or a particular graffiti artist. Find it, take a picture, or note it. Look for more. When you’re done, try to figure out why that stuff is there.
  • Watch the local news (or read the local paper): It might not seem like it, but the local news is a great way to get to know your city, faults and all. Since they tend to talk about local issues, it’s also a good way to learn about what’s happening in your neighborhood. This in turn helps you pay attention to all kinds of new things.
  • Walk with an expert: Chances are, you have some friends with different careers and hobbies than you. Take a walk with them and they’ll teach you new things about the space around you. It might be local history, geology, or even typography.
  • Take a “soundwalk”: This one sounds a little silly, but teacher Marc Weidenbaum took students around on a soundwalk where they found origin points of sounds, explored the area in a new way, and trained their ear to listen for new things.
  • Take field notes: We’ve talked about this before, and the idea is pretty simple. Pick a place, sit down, and write or sketch out everything you see. This trains your brain to pay more attention and observe more of the world.
  • Take on a 365-Day Photo Challenge: If you’re not really sure where to start, a 365 day photo challenge is a place to experiment. The basic idea is that you take a photo a day for a full year, with different challenges each day to keep things interesting. It certainly trains your mind to look through a camera lens a little differently.

Why should this matter to me?
Theologian and writer Frederick Buechner once said this:

If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else, we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must not just see their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.