Tony stands at the edge road with his cell phone pressed to his ear. "Yes I need an ambulance off of the 89 right before you get to Page Arizona...yes near Horseshoe Bend." There is a small trickle of blood that runs down his forehead and is drying on his face and chin. As he takes a couple of shallow breaths a sharp pain protrudes from his side. He winces and decides to take a seat. His breathing feels labored as though he just went for a long run. A concerned driver pulls over to ask if he is okay. He doesn't respond but rather stares at the oil and glass were strewn about the boiling pavement. "I need to call my wife," he says to himself as he picks back up his phone and shakily attempts to dial it.
Even if you have never experienced an accident like the one described above, you can probably imagine what Tony is going through. In your opinion, how much of the scene is he digesting? How aware is he of his surroundings? What do you think is the most important thing that he should be focusing his attention on? What would you be focusing on?
What would you think if I told you that the most important thing that he should be focusing on at this moment is not the cut on his forehead, neither is it the fact that his car is totally wrecked. It's not the concerned citizen asking him if he is all right and it's not the scorching dessert-like conditions that surround him. It's the pile of fire ants he just put his foot in. Tony is highly allergic to fire ant bites and guess what, the labored breathing he is experiencing is not from the car accident, it's from the ant bites.
Sometimes the most important thing to observe can be the most insignificant. If you were standing at the side of the road, would you have looked for an ant pile amidst all of the wreckage? I'm going to take a wild guess and say no. But do not feel bad about that. We generally see the world in one of two ways, passively or induced/deliberately. What does that mean?
No matter how smart we are, if we look at the world passively, the things we observe can become borderline meaningless or at least useless to us. Yes, we may notice things, but how much those things take on meaning can fluctuate drastically from moment to moment. For example, take a look at the picture below. What do you see?
If you said that the picture has music books, you did a great job. There are three types of books here, piano scores, songbooks, and cello scores. Did it cross your mind to read any of the composers listed on the sides of the binding? Did you notice how worn some of the books appear? Did you see the various types of binding used? Did you notice the differing heights? Did you take in the fact that there is some level of organization? Did you notice the publishers of the books? Did you speculate about my abilities as a musician?
This bombardment of questions is by no means an attempt to make you feel like you aren't paying attention. You did well if you simply identified what type of books there are. The reason why those other questions probably didn't pop into your head is simple, you didn't care about the information. This picture is just another passive piece of information in a never-ending wave of information.
Now let's move past the bookshelf and move back to Tony's car accident. The fire ant pile is nothing in comparison to a car accident, at least nothing to most people. If we had known Tony was allergic to ant bites, we probably would not have made the connection that his labored breathing was associated with ant bites. We may not even have looked down when he was standing in the pile. Why? Sometimes information overload leaves little mental real estate to focus on slow deliberate thinking. It's important to note this because if we ask the question, "how come I didn't see that?" it's probably because you either weren't focusing on the information, didn't care about the information, there was too much information available to process, or you were distracted.
In the stories of Sherlock Holmes, he has a way to combat this overload. First, he doesn't waste his time on the non-essentials. What does that mean? Recall in the stories that he identifies himself as a consulting detective. In his line of work, he uses philosophy/logic as well as a plethora of specific skills and knowledge to solve cases. That is, he doesn't bother learning anything that doesn't help him become the best man for the job. It leaves him with sharpness and constant vigilance that might seem uncommon but I argue that you may have similar attributes in your particular field of interest.
The key difference between us and Holmes is his job is to read situations and people. He stores his energy for those moments when his work begins. He practices this skill set because it's what he does for a living. Of course, years of practice have honed his skills, making his ability to do deductions seem as simple as Lionel Messi handling a soccer ball. But that helps us understand why it might be challenging for us to do what Holmes does. We aren't consulting detectives so we have little interest in the information that would help us become better at that job. We don't waste our time on the non-essentials.
Second, Holmes is a deliberate thinker and a deliberate worker. When he encounters a piece of information, he is actually weighing it in the balance and sifting through possibilities of what is, what isn't, and what matters. Incidentally, he doesn't release his theories until they are fully formed and can be backed by evidence or at least strong suspicion backed by careful thought. This is NOT common by any means. What do I mean?
When you hear a piece of news, what's the first thing you do? If you're skeptical, you may question the validity or reason for the news piece. If you're a passive listener, you may take the information at face value. Whatever the actual response, most of us will rarely extend ourselves to explore the story theoretically without bias or judgment. And unless you are a watchdog or news reporter, you will likely form an opinion about what was read or heard, possibly do some follow up research, and move on with your life.
As I mentioned earlier, Holmes is a deliberate thinker and worker. When he encounters information that is of value, he goes on the offensive. He explores the possibilities of what could be (hypothesis) and then looks for specific pieces of information (evidence) that help him reach an accurate conclusion about his hypothesis. He does the leg work and doesn't guess to reach his conclusions. Now, of course, that is not to say that his work doesn't require some speculation. But most of his speculation is left for when he imagines what could be. That means he gets the facts first before he theorizing and not the other way around. Like he says in A Scandal In Bohemia,
I have no data yet. It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.
So now that we understand a little more about these two types of observations, let's discuss the logic/strategies you can use to improve in this type of area of thought.
Answering the question, "what do I see?" is rather complicated. When you look at something, it's easy to draw the conclusion that your brain is seeing everything. But our brains are only seeing/processing certain parts of what we are actually observing. In addition to visual inputs, our brains are also processing things like smell, sounds, touch, taste, feelings, memories, etc... So it's not a leap in logic to say that your brain might miss something when you are trying to make an observation. In addition, salience matters. For example, imagine you rustle a bush that has a hornets' nest. The hornets come out in full force and are about to attack you. Will you waist valuable brain space thinking, "You know that flower looks like it was stepped on. I wonder if someone was walking on the grass over here earlier."? The idea is absurd. At that moment, you need all of your mental resources devoted to the escape from the angry hornets.
Crazy scenarios set aside, even under ideal conditions, things like diet, rest, attention/focus, and interest play big parts on how well we can observe any one thing or event. With this in mind, having a strategy for how we intend to interpret situations and things comes in handy and ensures that we are a clear in what we intend to see.
Here are suggestions for ways to improve our observation skills.
Avoid reaching conclusions about what you see until you have an opportunity to write your observation down. Doing this almost requires you to turn off your external or internal dialogue. This is really useful because of how fast our brain attempts to interpret the information we take in. The goal here is you want to be as deliberate and slow in your thinking as possible. A good strategy for slowing down your thinking besides writing something down is to count items or things in your observation.
Ask yourself, "what do I know is possible, and probable about this situation?" Presenting a question like this when you first observe something is useful because it forces you to ponder and actually question your stored knowledge base. When this question isn't asked, the tendency is to come up with a reason why something is and sticking to it because it's the first and only thing that popped into your head. Additionally, asking yourself a question like, "What bias or belief about this situation might present itself?" Like in the example of Tony and the fire ants, our own experience with accidents tell us that we can get physically hurt. So it's not a far leap to think that his breathing was associated with the accident. But had we asked that question about bias, we may have slowed our thinking down just enough to not jump to conclusions. And that's the goal here.
Reinvent the steps or the chain of events associated with the observation. Of course, this does require us to use more of our imagination that true observation skills, but this is an extremely valuable skill set to acquire. If we can replay an invent and the series of steps that caused it, we can begin looking at things with more clarity. Of course, we have to avoid creating a complete fantasy. But if we can see the chain of events clearly in our mind's eye, we can infer just a little bit more out of what we are observing.