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The Art of Observation

The art of observation is more than seeing something, it’s a mental process.

As found in The Art of Scientific Investigation:

It is important to realize that observation is much more than merely seeing something; it also involves a mental process. In all observations there are two elements : (a) the sense-perceptual element (usually visual) and (b) the mental, which, as we have seen, may be partly conscious and partly unconscious. Where the sense-perceptual element is relatively unimportant, it is often difficult to distinguish between an observation and an ordinary intuition. For example, this sort of thing is usually referred to as an observation: “I have noticed that I get hay fever whenever I go near horses.” The hay fever and the horses are perfectly obvious, it is the connection between the two that may require astuteness to notice at first, and this is a mental process not distinguishable from an intuition. Sometimes it is possible to draw a line between the noticing and the intuition, e.g. Aristotle commented that on observing that the bright side of the moon is always toward the sun, it may suddenly occur to the observer that the explanation is that the moon shines by the light of the sun.

The Two Types of Observation

Claude Bernard distinguished two types of observation: (a) spontaneous or passive observations which are unexpected; and (b) induced or active observations which are deliberately sought, usually on account of an hypothesis. … Effective spontaneous observation involves firstly noticing some object or event. The thing noticed will only become significant if the mind of the observer either consciously or unconsciously relates it to some relevant knowledge or past experience, or if in pondering on it subsequently he arrives at some hypothesis. In the last section attention was called to the fact that the mind is particularly sensitive to changes or differences. This is of use in scientific observation, but what is more important and more difficult is to observe (in this instance mainly a mental process) resemblances or correlations between things that on the surface appeared quite unrelated.

You Need to Discriminate

One cannot observe everything closely, therefore one must discriminate and try to select the significant. When practicing a branch of science, the ‘trained’ observer deliberately looks for specific things which his training has taught him are significant, but in research he often has to rely on his own discrimination, guided only by his general scientific knowledge, judgment and perhaps an hypothesis which he entertains.

Habits Are Important

Powers of observation can be developed by cultivating the habit of watching things with an active, enquiring mind. It is no exaggeration to say that well developed habits of observation are more important in research than large accumulations of academic learning.

Learning to observe

Training in observation follows the same principles as training in any activity. At first one must do things consciously and laboriously, but with practice the activities gradually become automatic and unconscious and a habit is established. Effective scientific observation also requires a good background, for only by being familiar with the usual can we notice something as being unusual or unexplained.

(These excerpts are from Maria’s post @ Brain Pickings.)