Thursday, September 11, 2008

Tasting The Urine

"The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

Sherlock Holmes inspired me when I was a kid. I loved the idea of being able to look around and in one glance dissect the world commandingly; I thrilled at the intellectual acrobatics and the keen discipline the master displayed.

According to Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, observation is one of the thirteen thinking tools of the world's most creative people. Their book, "Sparks of Genius" is being used in a class I am taking. So, you'll forgive me if I incorporate some of my learning into the blog.

The thing that the Root-Bernsteins emphasize is that while observation is key to being able to apply creativity in real-world applications, it is something that can be learned. Observation isn't just a gift that some have and some don't. Art critic Herbert Read once stated that "observing is almost entirely a an acquired skill."

So what's the key? I'm not going to write an essay here about how to improve observational skills, I just wanted to note the importance of observation in creativity. Especially as a writer. However, one can just as easily make an argument for the importance of observation in any discipline. In any profession. By watching, focusing, using patience, one will spot patterns perhaps previously unnoticed and perhaps through those patterns make connections that they might have missed otherwise.

And of course, we must be cautious to limiting observation to the visual. Observation should include the aural, the olfatory, the tactile. Consider the keen aural skills of the musician, of an engineer listening to a car engine, of an attentive parent listening to a child at play or at rest.

The Root-Bersteins quoted W.E.B. Beveridge and I would like to share the story here:

"A Manchester physician, while teaching a ward class of students took a sample of diabetic urine and dipped a finger in it to taste it. He asked his students to repeat this action. Reluctantly they did, agreeing with their mentor that the urine was indeed sweet. 'I did this to teach you the importance of observing detail,' he said. 'Had you watched me carefully you would have noticed I dipped only my first finer into the urine...but licked the second."


Charles Gramlich said...

It's not just the observation of everything however. It is the observation of the unusual, the things others don't see.

L.A. Mitchell said...

LOL...okay, nasty.

From my perspective, observation skills come from those willing to step outside themselves and their own sense of self-importance the universe revolves around. Most of the observant people I know are introverts and quiet enough to listen, though by no means is this a requirement.

Vwriter said...

Ouch, ouch, ouch. Confess. This story is really about a Michigan educator, isn't it, who performed this experiment on his own class. I'm sure we'll be reading something about this in the paper soon enough...

Sphinx Ink said...

Very interesting...and amusing. Sherlockian, in fact.

spyscribbler said...

What a great point! The more they notice, the more command they have over the knowledge. And, I find, the more they have fun. Generally speaking.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Ah, interesting point Charles. Some would argue that it is a matter of taking the usual, the mundane, and making it new. Taking the known and helping others to know it differently.

L.A. Yep, there are many different perspectives regarding the process of observation. I think most people would agree observation is an active process. I'll never confess.

Sphinx, I have a lot more to say on this subject. But I thought it would be interesting to stimulate a little dialogue.

Spy..the more people notice, the more command they have. You know, I worked with kids today, starting the teaching process of working with observation. I'll have to let you know how this goes after this week.

SQT said...

Ew. I grew up with three brothers, so I know not to fall for something like that.

What interests me about your post is how I notice how much I don't notice about my environment until some small detail is brought to my attention.

A small example... My husband and I need to landscape our backyard. It needs trees so we started looking at trees common to our area that would be good to plant. Turns out the Crape Myrtle grows well in our area. I never realized how many Crape Myrtles were planted on our street until recently. Totally oblivious to them. And they're everywhere.

I know this is not an unnoticed phenomenon. I'm sure that every time someone buys a new car they all-of-a-sudden notice everyone else on the road driving that same car. But it drives home the fact that we're on autopilot most of the time.

x_X_xThe Black Rabbitx_X_x said...

Well, considering have seen your observational skills at work Stu... This is no news to me.


He does test things on his students - I know. I am one.

Christina said...

I think my observation skills will get my butt kicked one of these days. I tend to notice people and they casually glance at them way too many times till I can see all the details. I need to be a little more like Holmes and not be so obvious.

Donnetta Lee said...

I think it's all about perspective and focus. Nothing we look at is flat. Each thing is multifaceted. Most people are only willing to view one aspect at a time. I think we get lazy and glance rather than look. And another point to your story: There's a sucker born every minute.

Stewart Sternberg said...

SQT, the first thing is becoming aware, or rather making a determination to become aware. I think it's a conscious act.

Black Rabbit..get back to your school work. And thanks for the compliment. Now I have to punish you.

I don't know. I think there's power in being obvious. Sometimes, at parties, I sit and watch and watch and watch. Maybe it's why I wasn't quite as successful as I wish I could have been back in my single days.

Donetta, sucker born every minute is one of my favorite quotes. Another one of my favorites: Stop or you'll go blind.

Lana Gramlich said...

Would it just totally suck if I observed the typo "I dipped only my first finer" in this post? ;) (That's a classic story, btw. I real humdinger!)

Charles P. Zaglanis said...

Hmmm, I recall seeing this exact event portrayed in a movie, a comedy if I recall correctly. Last American Virgin? I dunno.

I can't believe it's been over a year since I bloged, where does the time go?

Virginia Lady said...

Observation brings a wealth of imagination to a writer. By observing the mundane and ordinary, one can make it fascinating by giving it a new twist. But you have to watch *how* you observe.

Many years ago some men I had been observing were positive I was interested in them because I would stare, and then I learned to temper my glances. And then I had women do the same thing later on in life. It was quite a surprise. Now I wear dark sunglasses all the time.

I've read of that professor's experiment before and every time a shiver runs down my spine. Gross.