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Observation: A catalyst to better sense of being

Author – Sreenidhi Sundaran, Research Associate, Brighter Minds


“Knowledge comes from noticing resemblance and recurrences in the events that happen around us,” – Wilfred Trotter

Dr. Joseph Bell a surgeon at the University of Edinburgh during the late 19th century, was a primary mentor of the Sherlock Holmes’ Fame Arthur Conan Doyle. Bell’s way of deducing obvious and subtle details about the patients was to observe them keenly. By this method, he could state facts about the patient which matched with the situation. He also used to pick strangers on the street and describe details of his/her occupation, health, and domestic life, etc. He could do this because he’d previously learned and tested himself on all types of circumstances and experiences related to occupations, behaviors, posture, disease, and dialects. These ‘super observational skills’ led to him considered as one of the pioneers of forensic science way before science was used in a criminal investigation. 

We innately acquire the skill of observing; as children, we would observe our immediate environment and tend to imitate our parents, siblings, grandparents or any ideal or a leader. It is through observation that we gather information from outside. This further influences our thoughts, actions, and behaviors. We are also conditioned (values, belief systems, fears) to a certain way of life through our sense of observation. 

Observation is defined as the ‘process of appreciating something or someone in order to gain information’. Observation is not just through vision but through hearing, smell, touch, and taste. Observation as a skill is subtle but influences us in a powerful manner. Observation is learning on the flow–it’s like one of those things we acquire as we go through our daily chores. This process can occur both consciously and unconsciously. And every experience adds to our body of knowledge, making us great assets of our organization, industry, family and to ourselves. 

Observation is such a prime skill, it is the root to most of the positive attributes like creativity, leadership, intelligence, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, and many more because all these require us first to observe what is happening around to figure out the pattern and with experience, recognize the pattern. With consistent pattern recognition, we will be able to make the necessary connections to produce a fresh perspective or idea.

Anterior Cingulate Cortex

From a neuroscience perspective, when an individual pays attention to their immediate environment, the neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex is being activated. Anterior cingulate cortex(ACC), is known to be involved in social information, empathy, decision making, emotions. According to a research study conducted by  Kay Tye, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), uncovered the brain network involved in the observational learning process. The researchers wanted to study Induced Observational Learning. So, they examined what happens to mice that watch another mouse undergo an electric shock. The electric shock was always paired with the presentation of a tone. This trained the ‘observer mice’ undergoing the shock to fear the tone. The researchers then played the tone for the observer mice. The observer mice also feared the tone, indicating that they had engaged in observational learning. During this period, they conducted a process called neural trajectory analysis. This technique shows how neurons change their firing rates during learning. When the tone is presented to the observer mice, there is high activity in their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and basolateral amygdala (BLA). The ACC is known to be involved in social information, and the BLA helps process emotions. This suggests that during observational learning, the ACC becomes active when the mouse sees something bad happens to another mouse, and then this information is passed along to the BLA, which helps the mouse form an association between the cue (the tone) and an undesired outcome.

As we grow, we use less of the observational skills because our attention span reduces. Even though the brain can scan 30 to 40 pieces of information (e.g., sights, sounds, smells) per second, its limited resources mean that most of them are immediately forgotten. Our systems get overwhelmed with simultaneous information. But with constant effort and training, we can slow down the process. 

Observation has four main purposes, like observation for;

  • Development, observations where an observee makes their own decisions about how to use the observer and their observations. In working with the observer’s perspective, a teacher can develop not only their ability to observe but also their reasoning, so that student learning will be more effectively supported. 

  • Training,  observations where the focus of learning is on observing the ‘skilled practitioner’s behavior’. Trainees may observe the experts at work or are observed making attempts at skilled behaviors.

  • Evaluation, observations where the main purpose is for the observer to make a judgment. Trainers may need to use observation as part of a decision-making process about whether trainees can pass courses. People with managerial responsibilities may use it within employee appraisal systems, and to guide strategic employee development planning.

  • Research, observations are carried out for the purpose of creating theories. The researcher is the main learner/observer, and although ultimately most researchers would like their theories to bring in a positive difference in practices, the aim is to generate descriptions and plausible explanations of educational phenomena. Data are gathered using carefully designed and focused observation schedules. Observees will often be informed of the general description of the research and consent will be obtained.

Improving observation can help in inculcating many skills like interpersonal skills(Empathy), and creativity. When we observe our surroundings carefully, we acquire rich information that will aid us in better decision making and problem-solving. Enhancing observation does have a positive impact on empathy when we pay close attention to people(family members, friends, colleagues, strangers) and their way of life, we tend to understand them on a deeper level which in turn better our interpersonal relationships. 

Observation also facilitates creativity, originality or flexible thinking. When we start to observe, we are nurturing the ability to discover the most subtle nuances of our surroundings and we are able to make connections with our prior information. Consecutively it opens our mind to new possibilities allowing us to experience many aspects that can ignite innovation. 

Observational skills can be enhanced by small changes in our daily routine. Firstly, including meditation in our daily lives will be beneficial. Meditation helps to sharpen the sense of observation of not only the outside but also one’s thoughts, emotions, and feelings which help to put up a more thoughtful and constructive response to the situation. Secondly, when we commute to our workplace we could observe the place, people, nature and if possible make note of the information that interests us. Another simple way is by trying a new hobby or visiting a never-before-visited place as this naturally heightens the awareness and focus.

Brighter Minds training aims at increasing the observational skills of children through highly researched intervention package in just about 8 weeks. The program incorporates a series of interactive tools and techniques; and provides a learning environment based on joy, positivity, and love. A specially designed proprietary music uses certain beat frequencies that help unlock the vast potential of the human brain. Children through our program have been able to gain intensified focus, enhanced intuition, strengthened memory, deepened empathy and improved comprehension.


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Matthijs Baas, Observation Skills May be Key Ingredient to Creativity.

Len Brzozowski, Empathetic Observation.

Davis, Karen D., Stephen J. Taylor, Adrian P. Crawley, Michael L. Wood, and David J. Mikulis. “Functional MRI of pain- and attention-related activations in the human cingulate cortex”

Lane RD, Reiman EM, Axelrod B, Yun LS, Holmes A, Schwartz GE (July 1998). “Neural correlates of levels of emotional awareness. Evidence of an interaction between emotion and attention in the anterior cingulate cortex’’

Pardo JV, Pardo PJ, Janer KW, Raichle ME (January 1990). “The anterior cingulate cortex mediates processing selection in the Stroop attentional conflict paradigm”

Corticoamygdala Transfer of Socially Derived Information Gates Observational Learning Stephen A. Allsop, Romy Wichmann, Fergil Mills, Demba Ba, Emery N. Brown, Kay M. Tye.

Observational Learning and Intelligence, Alexander Vostroknuto.

Specific Mindfulness Skills Differentially Predict Creative Performance, Matthijs Baas

Malderez, A. 2002. ‘In-service adviser mentor development’ in D. Hayes (ed.). Making a difference: The experience of the Primary English Language Project. Sri Lanka. Colombo: The British Council

Williams, M. 1989. ‘A developmental view of classroom observation’. ELT Journal 43/2: 85–91.

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