Mindful Observation: Improve your Observation Power.

Written by Milan Hayanju on November 15,2020 in psychology

If you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes then you may remember his remark to Watson “You see but you don’t observe”. Like Watson, we all have been guilty of missing out on things that happened right before our eyes. This is because most of us lack the skill of mindful observation.

So, what is mindful observation? Mindful Observation is the mental process of consciously noticing things that are happening at the moment without distraction. The core idea of mindful observation is to have active and deliberate attention to the subject you choose to focus on. The subject you are observing may be the specific thought in your mind or the events happening right in front of you.

Observation is the starting point to take any decision in our life. Whether you are choosing your life partner or lunch, the quality of the result depends upon your observation. Yet most of us will never utilize the true potential of our observational power. 

To learn about how mindful observation works and how to improve it continue reading!

Seeing vs Observation

One of the common misconceptions of observation is that it is about seeing something. But we need to understand that just because something enters our visual field that doesn’t mean we observe. Like when you check your notification on your phone but you fail to notice the time. Or you are searching for glasses which are right in your hand. 

Observation is not just noticing direct sensory experience like seeing, feeling, tasting, touching, or hearing. It is a mental process that requires the active attention of the mind. You can see countless elements from the world without ever registering in your mind. 

It turns out that our retina can capture about ten billion bits per second of visual information. Of that, we can consciously process only about forty. It means we see little of what’s around us. 

Further, if you take account of our state of mind, our mood, thoughts at the moment, motivation, and goals, we will see even less. To retain and process the information you see, you need to be observant.

So, what is the difference between Seeing and Observing?

The main difference between seeing and observation is attention. And it is not just true for sight, but each sense, each input, each thought requires attention to be observant. When we truly observe the world, we are forced to pay attention to. 

Anything beyond your attention, your eyes would look directly at them, and your brain will ignore it. And your brain would have been right to do so. Our brains have a limited capacity to process information. And anything your mind deems unworthy of your attention, it must be unnecessary.

To master your observation, you need to know what and how to observe. You need to be able to direct your attention accordingly: what details do you focus on? What details do you neglect? How do you take in and capture those details that you choose to focus on? What to do in case of distraction? The working mechanism of observation depends upon attention.

Now, the question: why is it so hard to pay attention?

It turns out that it’s not necessarily our fault. As neurologist Marcus Raichle found after decades of looking at the brain, our minds are wired to wander i.e. whenever our thoughts are between specific, discrete, goal-directed activities, the brain is constantly gathering information from both the external world and our internal states. At the same time, it is monitoring for signs that are worth its attention.

From the evolutionary standpoint, this state of mind helps us to detect potential predators, to think abstractly, and make plans. Our minds are made to wander. It is our default state. For every new input, our brain will treat it as a possible predator that needs our attention. So, our attention jumps from one subject to another subject. Anything more requires an act of conscious will.

The modern emphasis on multitasking feeds our natural tendency to stay in these wandering states. We pay attention to everything which is like paying attention to nothing. While our minds might be made to wander but our minds are not made to perform multiple tasks. Our mind cannot switch the attention between tasks which require high cognitive resource.

Now, the real question arises how much are you aware of your attention? As all too often, when it comes to our minds, we are surprisingly mindless. We go through our lives unaware of how much we are missing. 

Most of the time we are not in control of attention. Without control over attention, our mind will capture random information wasting limited resources in our brain that process information. So, how to take control of our attention? The answer: mindfulness.

How does Mindful Observation work? 

The essence of observation is attention. Paying attention might seem like a simple task, but it is anything but simple. Throughout your life, you might hear a statement like “why can’t you pay more attention? Where is your attention? Focus on studying. Focus more.” You may wonder “Do I really lack aptitude for attention?”

You see, the problem isn’t a lack of attention but it is a lack of mindfulness and direction. In the usual course, our brain picks and chooses where to pay attention without much conscious forethought on our parts. And if you leave your brain to its devise, it will default to a wandering state.

What we need to learn is the ability to tell our brain what and how to filter instead of letting them be lazy and decide for us. It is you who need to consciously choose to pay attention to. As Ortega y Gasset said: “Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are”

For example, have you ever find yourself binge-watching popular TV series like Games of Thrones. You can observe the unique features of every character, rate the costume design, pick up violin note in the background, and even understand subtle nuance in conversation. At that moment you are in a kind of mindful state. You can retain attention for a prolonged time, manage distractions, and be engaged with the task at hand. 

Essentially you are observing by being present in the moment. Now, you know you are wasting your time binge-watching 10 hours a day. But it is far easier than picking up a book and finish reading it. Our mind tends to avoid a hard and uncomfortable task.

Now, watching favorite TV series or playing video games may be easier to pay attention to. As our attention naturally gravitates toward things that interest us. But, we cannot always depend on our interest scale to direct our attention. There are a lot of things you will find uninteresting but you will still need to pay attention to it.

The skill and knowledge you desire require hours and hours of boring and unsexy practice. During those practices, you need to be mindful if you truly want to master it. Making something interesting is one of a great way to pull your attention. But if you solely depend on your interest to capture your attention, you will miss out on a lot of the things.

What you need to strive for is the ability to direct your attention to anything. Imagine you are staring at paint drying on the wall and still find the way to give full attention. You need to aim for that level of mastery of attention.

The difference between normal observation and mindful observation is the voluntary approach to direct your attention. By consciously choosing to observe, you are telling your mind to work out of an idle wandering state.

Now, the first step of mastering mindful observation is being mindful. Being mindful means the presence of the mind at any given moment. It is the ability to be aware of your thoughts, emotions, and what’s happening in your mind and respond accordingly to our best interest.

By being mindful, you can be aware of your attention and eliminate your impulsive habit of wandering mind by consciously choosing to be present at the moment and take the best course of action.

By being present with the moment, you need to resist your urge to give in to the impulsive decision. And bring back your attention to the task you need to do. It is a core framework to focus attention. So, mindful observation is not just unconsciously noticing things that only interest us but it is an act of being able to observe anything at any moment with conscious effort.

How do you practice observing thoughts?

Observing thoughts inside is far more difficult than observing things outside. The enemy of observation is the distraction. And when distraction breeds visceral reaction, it becomes incredibly hard to focus your attention. Yet, the observing thoughts present the hardest distraction of all: emotions.

Think about it when it is about observing thought there is always some kind of emotion attached to it. If the emotions are powerful enough, you will automatically react to it. Now, if you are feeling positive emotions, it may not harm you but what if it is intense negative emotions? 

Take an example imagine you are giving a speech in a big town hall. While you were giving a speech you see someone laughing in the front row. You immediately think they are laughing at you. Now you are getting nervous and lost for the word. How many times you act impulsively when the train of thoughts brings strong emotional reactions.

One of the common ways to prevent this impulsive reaction is to simply ignore these thoughts altogether. But ignoring every thought which breeds negative emotions can harm our mind in long run. The repressed thoughts may creep into your subconscious psyche and bring on more trouble.

Imagine you were able to observe your thought as it is. You could pick and choose which thoughts to listen to or react to. You could observe the thoughts which breed the negative feeling and find the root of negative emotions associated with that thought. The first step of observing thoughts requires you to ground yourself in the present moment.

The process of observing thought requires you to mindfully observe thought as an observer, not a participant (being a participant in sense: reacting with every thought that comes into the mind). By being present in the moment without passing any judgment, you need to objectively observe your thought. You need to understand how these thoughts can affect you. By knowing its effects on you, instead of reacting to thoughts, you will be able to mindfully respond to it.

Like anything mastering the art of observing thoughts require practice. One of the simplest ways to practice observing thoughts is through the analogy of a train of thoughts. Imagine your mind as the train station and your thoughts as a train. You will observe every thought as the train passing through the train station.

Rather than being affected by every thought that passes through your mind, you will observe it as it is. If some thought needs your attention, you will pay attention to it with purpose. You will deliberately choose to observe that thought and learn how that thought affects you and respond accordingly. 

How do you improve your Mindful Observation?

Being Selective

Attention is a limited resource. Paying attention to one thing comes with the expense of others. Two tasks cannot possibly be given the same attentional foreground. One will inevitably end up being the focus and the other will fade away. Or worse none of them will be focused.

You need to choose wisely where to invest your attention. By being selective of your attention, you can remain focused on your task. It is the battle of quality over quantity so allocate your attention mindfully. You can use this simple strategy to assign your attention.

  • Thinking ahead about what you need to pay attention to in the given situation. Motivating yourself to view the moment as a part of the bigger picture to a better future.
  • Being specific and setting the definite goal as far as possible to invest your attentional resources.
  • Setting up contingencies for the situation and understanding what you need to do in case of distraction and mind wandering. It will allow you to refocus on the task at the hand.
  • Write everything down what you need to focus on in a notebook as a reminder instead of thinking it in your head. 
  • Open to be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances.

Be Objective

Being objective is one of the hardest things to do. In any situation, our mind is conditioned to see the world in a certain way. We believe what we want to see and what our mind decides to see and adopt that belief as real facts. In the default case, our mind is fast, intuitive, and reactionary.

In that state, our mind is vulnerable to biases and fallacies. The first step of being objective is to understand such pitfalls of the brain. To truly observe, you must learn to separate situation from interpretation. By avoiding our tendency to instantly interpret the situation, you can become more objective.

Be inclusive

Even though our site is one of the primary sense for our observation. We should not discount other senses like smell, hearing, taste, touch, etc. Most of the time we don’t realize but the sense like a smell can trigger memory which is powerful, vivid, and emotional.

For example, imagine yourself in a car lot, salesman walk by with a mug of hot chocolate. You might not even notice when he passed the smell trigger happy memories of your grandmother. And just like that, you purchase a car without any actual inspection because the smell reminds you of the happy time with your grandmother.

Such incidence happens all the time in our life. By being inclusive of all the senses, we need to realize its impacts on our observation.

Be engaged

The single most important thing you can do to be mindfully observant is being engaged. Think about it, if we stop being engaged with the task at hand, the performance will drop off no matter how skilled you are to do that job.

While being engaged, we can enter the flow state where we become more motivated and aroused overall, and consequently more likely to be productive and create something of value. Even if the activity is as boring as sorting through a spreadsheet, you can find motivation and drive to be mindful.

Conclusion

We have covered what is mindful observation and how does it work. Considering your own experience, you can apply these theories and techniques to benefit you. Like any skill mindful observation can be honed as an effective tool by practicing it regularly.

What we need to understand is that mindful observation is a choice, it requires our conscious effort to stay mindful and pay deliberate attention. By being mindful and choosing the investment of your attention, you will surely change your life.