The power of accurate observation is commonly called cynicism by those who have not got it.
-George Bernard Shaw
A skill is a tool you always have ready.
-Mr. Combs, my 8th grade shop teacher
I’m going to again refrain from treating you like you’re a moron and I’m an asshole, and we’re going to skip over the verbose preamble about how important developing keen skills of observation blah blah blah survival. Okay, lets just get down to it, observation skills are important. Next.
Observation is the act of collecting knowledge through the senses, the interpretation of sensory input by the process of thought, and the recording of data using scientific instruments, methodology, and reasoning.
There are a few ways to improve your observational skills, and just like knife sharpening, it’s really useful and the more you do it the better you get at it, but first lets make a distinction – we’re going to focus on ‘active observation’, the investigative aspect of observation; rather than passive observation, which will improve naturally as we practice.
Now, not to sound all ‘one with nature’, but technology is fucking up our natural skills here. We live in a culture of distraction, where we are constantly tuning out sensory input (advertisements, traffic, other people’s god damned phone conversations). We listen to music while we exercise, we watch television while we work, or eat, we listen to talk radio while we drive, and most of the time we just stare aimlessly off in some direction until we realize we’re actually staring at someone and quickly look away. Our thick skinned, big knuckled, iron-toothed great grandparents could jump around around at night branch to branch in the forest and track butterfly across the country like the predator; we stub our toes walking through our bedrooms.
Active observation is when your concentration is focused on gathering information, either for a specific reason (determining the outcome of an experiment, tracking an animal, eavesdropping on gossiping co-workers).
By improving our Active observation skills, we’re internalizing the tools necessary to improve our passive observation to some degree, but only kind of… More on that later.
First, some basic vision tricks. The human eye is designed to recognize detail from the focal point out, but is better at picking up movement when unfocused. If you’re watching for movement, use the old ‘no sight’ martial arts trick. Relax your eyes and focus on an empty point halfway between yourself and the area you’re observing.
Your peripheral vision is actually far better at detecting movement and has keener night vision than your direct gaze. When keeping watch, you want to scan an area with a periphral pass before scrutinizing details. Pay attention to your peripheral vision and the arc it covers, observation requires an awareness of limitation to be effective.
One way to train your peripheral awareness is by setting a timer to alert you during the day, when it goes off, without looking around, close your eyes and try to recall your surroundings as accurately as possible.
Mindfulness is a huge part of observation, developing mindfulness will heighten all aspects of your observation skill and, in general, improve your chances of survival over a longer timeline. So what is it?
Mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment” -Aleksandra Zgierska. It’s essentially being ‘present’ not necessarily focused but you, your mind and your attention, are there in the moment. We spend a lot of time elsewhere in our head, and not where we should be, which is on the razor’s edge of now.
You can practice mindfulness in a few easy ways.
1. Get in the habit of taking notes – Always carry a small notepad/book and a pen, use it frequently, whatever it is you’re doing, you’ll start organically developing keener observation skills as you’re finding new details to take note of and sketch.
2. Meditate. For real, it’s not bullshit, you don’t have to do it for hours and seek enlightenment or whatever, but spend 5 minutes every day just sitting still, with your eyes closed, focusing on your breathing. Whenever your attention drifts away, pull it back by focusing on your breathing, ignore stray thoughts, bring it back to the breathing. That’s it.
3. Whenever you meet a new person, or enter a new location, find something to anchor your thoughts to in that moment, look for a unique characteristic to commit to memory about that place or that person. Just doing this will train you to start seeking those things out immediately and naturally, until it becomes natural.
Observation is as much a habit as it is a skill; unlike other survival skills, like stealth or tracking, it’s not something that you turn on and off or employ when you think to; it’s as important that it becomes something you cultivate so it’s ‘always on’.
Building habits should probably have its own section somewhere; but here’s the gist of it. You build habits through repetition and reinforcement. The repetition part is obvious, but the reinforcement is often overlooked. You should reward yourself when you perform something you’d like to make a habit, and punish yourself when you violate the habit you are trying to build (or break). The brain will do most of the work for you, if you just stick to this basic scheme.
Punishments don’t need to be severe and rewards don’t need to be excessive; a small piece of chocolate, a pinch on your arm, just create the association and your brain will wire itself to your goals.
Scrutiny is a focused application of observation, where you devote all of your focus to a single type of observation. If you’re scrutinizing an object, you are actively observing every perceivable detail. Let’s say for example you’re trying to figure out if someone has recently used the path you’re on, and you notice a loose rock in the path. You’d employ scrutiny to learn everything that rock has to tell you, and maybe it will give you your answer. Now we’re not deducing yet, we’re just observing, empty of prejudice.
How big is the rock, is it dry, is it wet, is it uniformly clean or dirty, does it look like it was recently dislodged from the earth. How heavy is it, how round, could it roll, could it have snagged a foot, is the area beneath it dry or wet, are there insects under it… it won’t take much to figure out if it’s been there a while or if it has been recently moved, if it was part of the local environment or if was placed or dropped there.
Once you’ve scrutinized the object, even if it didn’t tell you what you wanted to know, you still know more than you did before, which is never a bad thing. Take some time out every day to scrutinize something. You don’t need to draw any conclusions, only note every conceivable detail.
All of these observation skills will eventually help us with deduction, induction, and inference; the logic of drawing usable conclusions from the data we’ve observed. For good trackers, this is second nature, for the rest of us, we’ve got to cultivate these skills before we need them.
More to come on investigation, in the meantime, observe, be mindful, and practice scrutiny. Good luck.