Discovery is observing and seeing

As mentioned, I'm reading a fascinating book called Sparks of Genius, which describes a number of thinking tools employed by prominent creatives in history. One of the tools is observation.

Honestly, I almost didn't read the chapter since it seemed, well, so obvious. I'm glad I did. Here's what I learned:

  • All five senses can be trained to observe and make incredibly fine distinctions.
  • Of all the tools discussed in the book, observation is perhaps the most accessible. Hard work can make great observers of almost anyone.
  • Mental expectations mediate perception. The mental picture of what we're seeking, for example, affects whether and how fast we find it. In other words, we can observe but not see. It's something I'll keep in mind the next time I lose my car keys.
  • "Objective observation" is not possible since editing is always happening. Our preconceptions can be crippling or liberating.
  • Observing is making sense of sensation.

Many outstanding writers had training in the visual arts. And many scientists such as Louis Pasteur and Mary Leakey had formal art training. I found this quote from biochemist Szent-Gyorgyi quite appealing because it summed up the value of great observational skill:

Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.