Build observation skills – Supercharge your imagination
Having a good sense of our environment is a super important part of life. So many things we do rely on a confident knowledge of what’s around us and the ability to predict it. Activities like crossing the street, walking through an office, driving a car or operating any kind of machinery and even just hanging out in any sort of social setting. It’s also central to the concept of being present. To be present somewhere means that there has to be an environment to be present in. The thing is that some people are more aware of their surroundings than others. History shows that it’s these aware people that survive. It’s this awareness that allows people to thrive.
Having a good awareness of your surroundings is probably something that you’ve occasionally thought about but aren’t often consciously doing. That’s the cool thing being human. Your mind can do so much in the background. But there’s a huge advantage to bringing this ability into the conscious realm and honing it as a skill.
How do we do this?
How do we have such a full and flowing experience of the world around us even though we can only observe a few snippets of that world at one time?
Good news. It’s not that hard and anyone can do it.
First let me explain a bit about how it actually works.
Warning: There’s a few big words and some neuroscience ahead but I’ll try and make it short and sweet. (I’m only looking at some small snippets of the neuroscience here just to help to build a picture of what’s going on and also, too much science can get a bit dull. If you want to find out more, I’ll add some links at the end.)
Constructing our sensory environment is simply using lots of little observations that I call ‘Splash’ observations (very fast observations of up to 2sec using rapid eye movements called saccades) and a clever form of imagination and memory called Transsaccadic Memory filling the gaps between these observations to develop a full sense of what’s around us, how we’re moving in that environment and how other things are moving in relation to us. It’s also useful for understanding the nature of our surroundings and whether it’s good, bad or a Sabre Toothed Tiger. It’s most dominant in sight but is profoundly aided by hearing and in a lesser way, our many other senses but because sight is our most dominant sense I’ll focus on that for now.
Let me take you there.
It’s 8:30am and you’re driving your car through regular traffic for that time of day, which is crazy busy. All the mums and dads are out dropping their kids off at school and the 9-5ers are bustling off to work. You’re bustling along too but you’re doing something as you go. Periodically you check your rearview and side mirrors, look over your shoulders at your blind spots and keep close tabs on your peripheral vision. If you think about it there are so many things going against having a clear, stable and flowing view around us, but you can still drive with absolute confidence having a clear mental picture of your surroundings. First there’s the fact that your sight is obstructed by elements of the car body; Blind spots. Our mirrors not only show you just 3 little squares of information of what’s behind you but also they show those images reversed. It’s the nature of mirrors. Then there’s the fact that your eyes only have a very narrow field of clear, focussed vision in the first place which then leads you to make loads of saccades (rapid eye movements) that constantly interrupt that field of vision. Even your peripheral vision is not consistent with huge blind spots in it. Then there’s the time factor. With so little sight available to you, how can we judge how fast things are going and in what direction. Somehow, while hurtling at 100km/hr down a windy path in a one and a half tonne steel tin can you can do it.
By observing your surroundings in this way you’re constructing a mental 4 dimensional projection of the world that surrounds you and your car. The first 3 dimensions are length, width and height and the 4th dimension is time. (Why time? Cars in traffic are always moving at different rates to each other and in different directions and your car is always moving along relative to the rest of the world. You’re perpetually trying to work out where things will be in the next couple of seconds.) Obviously this phenomenon applies to many other aspects of life other than driving.
Even with all the limitations on your visual field of view you can still construct a solid, flowing worldview. You do this using imagination and Transsaccadic Memory. We observe what we can, in this case it’s in lots of small splashes of observance, then we fill the gaps between these observations with imagination based on what we observed.
Let me break Transsaccadic Memory down for you:
Trans – Accross or through
Saccadic – A saccade is a quick eye movement like what you do when you glance at something briefly.
Memory – holding information in your mind about something. In this case, what you just glanced at.
I should note here that Transsaccadic memory works for multiple senses and has been tested on hearing and touch as well as sight but we’ll just be talking about sight here because it’s our most dominant sense.
This kind of memory is a bit special because it’s a bit like a buffer. It’s really short term and only holds around 3 to 4 objects in it. 1 There’s lots of conflicting discussion about Transsaccadic memory but generally it’s understood that this memory serves a number of very important functions:
“Studies have shown that there is a large amount of activation within the visual area V4 before the saccade even takes place. This occurs in the form of shrinking receptive fields. The receptive fields of these brain cells tend to shift towards the object that the eye is about to move towards, generally more so if the object is close to the original fixation point.This dynamic change in receptive fields is thought to enhance the perception and recognition of objects in a visual scene. Because the receptive fields become smaller around the targeted objects, attention within the visual scene is very focused on these objects. Increased attention to target objects within a visual scene help direct eye movements from one object to another. Understanding of the visual scene becomes more efficient because these attention shifts guide the eyes towards relevant objects as opposed to objects that may not be as important.” (Tolias, A, Moore, T, Smirnakis, S, Tehovnik, E, & Siiapas, A. 2001)
In simple terms what they’re saying is that when we have our attention switched on our minds predict what we’re about to see and prepares us to receive that image. When we flick our eyes over to see that image our minds lock on to it much easier and is focussed and prepared to receive information about that thing instantly. I like to see this as using our imagination to visualise an image before we actually see it.
The key here is attention. Our mind does much more than this using 4 key areas but they only work well if our attention is on the things we’re looking at. So if we’re just cruising around and passively seeing our surroundings our minds aren’t going to be very good at this. For example, if our attention is on the music playing, the conversation happening or the text that we’re sending in the car while we’re trying to drive. But if we give our full attention to driving and being fully aware of our environment, our minds have this great toolkit that makes us very efficient and effective at it helping us to be much much better at predicting events around us.
So back to our driving example from before, as you glance in your mirrors, over your shoulders and around the front, different parts of your mind are performing complex processing not only to perceive what you’re looking at effectively but to stitch it together in a seamless, flowing environment. Also The more attention you give to this observing, the better job your mind will do and as a result you’ll be a better and safer driver.
We’re made to survive and to thrive. Our minds are super complex devices built for super complex interaction with the world. What I like about it is that we really don’t even need to know what’s going on in our minds for it to happen. We just have to do one thing. To live a full and effective life, to interact seamlessly with the world and the people around us, to know and understand the how, why, what, when and where of our reality we have to give our full attention to the moment that we’re in.