How to sharpen acuity?
May 26, 2009 7:01 PM   Subscribe

I pride myself in being a "picker-up of learning's crumbs" (R. Browning) and an aspiring polymath, but I have atrocious observational skills. How do I fix this?

Ideally, I would like to hone them in such a way as to utilize my personal erudition to somewhat accurately reach a conclusion about a given situation, a la William of Baskerville or Sherlock Holmes. Heck, we'll throw in Shawn Spencer for good measure. Is there a specific term that describes this (for further research), or is this merely a form of mentalism? Heightened acuity?

Suggestions?

(It should be noted that I do not want tools merely to make snap-judgments about people, as suggested in these threads.)
posted by litterateur to Human Relations (21 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ideally, I would like to hone them in such a way as to utilize my personal erudition to somewhat accurately reach a conclusion about a given situation, a la William of Baskerville or Sherlock Holmes. Heck, we'll throw in Shawn Spencer for good measure. Is there a specific term that describes this[...]?

Yes: Fiction.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:23 PM on May 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


You ever sit down and read Sherlock Holmes? Seriously, do it. You'll find that his detective skills have as much to do with real detective work as a hollywood portrayal of a computer hacker. He exists in a world the writer creates soley for the purpose of the story. The real world cares nothing about you and doesnt leave nice clues all over the place.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:29 PM on May 26, 2009


Though Holmes and his methods were inspired by a real-life Dr. House type whom Arthur Conan Doyle knew.
posted by Kirklander at 7:39 PM on May 26, 2009


Maybe train yourself to get a photographic memory? I know it's possible, google comes up with this page. I have no idea if it works, or if it's worth doing.
posted by Think_Long at 7:42 PM on May 26, 2009


Then give up on the observational aspects and use others'. Seriously, if you're as rennaissensical as you describe, you should focus on what you're actually good at. Putting others' observations together, deriving meaning, or whatever.
posted by rhizome at 7:52 PM on May 26, 2009


Yes: Fiction.

Or in the traditional sense of the word, "ideology" is the set of mental tools by which we use pieces of knowledge and facts to put in order our assessment of situations and "praxis" the way by which those achieved understandings of the world are put into practice or articulated. As DDA says, Sherlock Holmes is able to work only in a pre-prepared universe. Real-world observation itself is inherently subjective in the context of social situations: if all you want to be able to do is assess any given situation with unerring certainty and have ready a set of pre-prepared solutions to any question, try out orthodox Marxism.

The utility of those pre-prepared solutions is another matter entirely. You may find yourself selling newspapers and attending very small, very long meetings
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:58 PM on May 26, 2009


Thanks for the input as of yet. I should have prefaced that I am well-aware my examples are fiction--idealized circumstances. But I am also aware that there is a basis from which Doyle created Holmes (Thank you, Kirklander. I had forgotten about Bell).

To suggest that a fictionalization negates any truth because there is innate contrivance, would be to say that there isn't truth in any form of fiction, which is a slippery slope. There goes modern mysteries. Fantasy. Science Fiction, etc.

I'm not looking for the answer to life and all of its complexities. And I'm not interested in party tricks. In bettering myself as a person, I would like to be more aware of my surroundings. And I'm asking for your suggestions as to how best to accomplish this.
posted by litterateur at 8:19 PM on May 26, 2009


I wish I knew how to state this more gently, but this was a hard-learned lesson for me...You have to get out of your own head if you want to be a great observer or really an observer at all. It is apparent that you are learned, and that is a good thing, but over-concern with your own level of erudition will keep you from what you want. That is my honest two cents.
posted by melangell at 8:32 PM on May 26, 2009 [7 favorites]


What you describe is indeed fiction as pointed out above, but if you want to sharpen your mind to solve general problems, inducing problems with a social aspect as well as more pure abstract and mathematical/logical elements, might i suggest boardgames.

Boardgames can operate on many levels and exercise many different ways of thinking, and the brilliant thing is that there are a few hundred good ones with very deep and complex rules that play within an hour or so (as well as deeper more involved fare, which are also good).

A little hobby of mine is playing a game I have never played before with players who have played and have to teach ME the rules and then proceed to use my amazing deductive reasoning abilities to divine a strategy for victory. It only works half the time for me (after much practice) but it is a very satisfying experience to beat the pants off of players who have played the game many times before your first time playing.

Another thing you can do is work in a national Tech support call center with users who are not very tech savvy. It won't help you with the general murder mystery, but it will help you with rapid problem solving. Most fun is when there is some totally weird bizarre bug that you solve instantly due to some esoteric fact you know (not about your product, just in general) or astute observation of how the normal person might interact with the world.

It will also demonstrate to you that the minutia of detail needed to be a true "general" Sherlock Holmes in all circumstances is totally super-human, I can only pull it off one in 100 because I know that people are operating on or around computers... the other 99 times even my constrained world of computers has so much complexity that the best we can do is trial and error, and even then often come up with half answers and unknowns.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 8:34 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


FYI - I am Board game addict and Tech Support Rep... YMMV.

But I am serious about the tech support thing. Basically some one calls you up over the phone with a mystery, and you need to solve it in 15 mins or less without interacting with their machine or seeing the environment. It really makes you listen, hone down to what questions are important and what to "look for" using the other person's eyes.
posted by DetonatedManiac at 8:38 PM on May 26, 2009


To suggest that a fictionalization negates any truth because there is innate contrivance, would be to say that there isn't truth in any form of fiction, which is a slippery slope.

I think the suggestion is that the fictionalization involved in your particular examples is quite far from what is plausible, not that there is no truth in fiction. Saying that one can only do what Sherlock Holmes does in a pre-prepared universe is very distant from this particular slippery slope.
posted by advil at 8:38 PM on May 26, 2009


Also, you may want to re-read TNOTR and think hard about what William of Baskerville's observational acuity (to the extent it is actually there) actually accomplishes.
posted by advil at 8:39 PM on May 26, 2009


Thank you for your candor, melangell. This stage in my life has me entrenched in academia, and I've only just begun to realize how easy it is to couch one's self in intellectualism.
Note to self: talk less, observe more. Thank you.

Advil, the hyperbole in the examples were meant to make clear the general idea of what I'm looking for. Apparently, I did not succeed in this, because most people so far have assumed that I would like to become the next Sherlock Holmes, which couldn't be farther from the truth.

And yes, I am aware that despite all of his suppositions, Baskerville stumbles upon the answer, and that Eco did this purposefully to solidify his theories on semiotics. But again, I had intended to provide those examples to show processes, not necessarily the same end-result.
posted by litterateur at 8:50 PM on May 26, 2009


Thanks, DetonatedManiac (I'm not sure how I missed your comments before)! You have completely understood the spirit of my query. I absolutely love your boardgame game idea, which I very well may try later in the week.
posted by litterateur at 8:57 PM on May 26, 2009


damn dirty ape: You ever sit down and read Sherlock Holmes? Seriously, do it. You'll find that his detective skills have as much to do with real detective work as a hollywood portrayal of a computer hacker. He exists in a world the writer creates soley for the purpose of the story. The real world cares nothing about you and doesnt leave nice clues all over the place.

I agree with this.

As a side-note, if you'd like to know what a real detective tends to go through and the observational skills involved (which are no less dramatic) you'd do best to read the greatest detective novelist of all time: Dashiell Hammett, who actually was a Pinkerton detective. Start with Red Harvest, but understand that it's as brutal as anything Cormac McCarthy's put to paper.

Anyhow, on to the question…

Two words: read Aristotle.

If those two words aren't enough, here are a few more. The acme of observational skill is not to reach a conclusion. It is handy to be able to reach such conclusions if one is dealing with criminals or trying to solve a puzzle, but life rarely actually presents us with puzzles to be solved; at almost every turn, life does not tell us the puzzles at all. That's why the acme of observational skill is the ability to avoid reaching a conclusion.

I recommend Aristotle because he is the most patient, the most careful, and the most thoughtful observer I've ever known; his observation is not really even a skill so much as a delight, something that he would do naturally whether he meant to or not. The vast majority of commentators on Aristotle don't really understand him because they don't realize this: it's easy to read him and think, “oh, he just reached a conclusion”… but when you look closely, you notice that Aristotle spends most of his time going over all of the possibilities. His general method (shown best, I think, in On The Soul) is: first, to go over what people say about something; second, to try to consider what a thing clearly cannot be; and third, to try to consider what a thing is. The point is that he rarely draws a direct conclusion or makes a clear statement about what the thing must be. He strives valiantly to be able to state clearly and definitively the truth, but he takes great joy in the process of observation.

To be good at observation is to constantly stay quiet, to constantly wait for the world to reveal itself, to constantly hold off the moment when one turns away, gives up the great work, and draws a conclusion. A person who is truly observant can easily pull off the parlor tricks that Sherlock Holmes et alia do, but it goes beyond that. Plato seems to teach that the stuff of society is and will forever be opinion; if you're really observant, you question opinion along with everything else on your way to knowledge, and society often doesn't like that very much. You may find your friends getting a little annoyed when you answer their loudly-expressed political opinions with a quiet “hmm…maybe…”
posted by koeselitz at 8:58 PM on May 26, 2009 [19 favorites]


Why not Mrs. Marple instead? Pay attention to the people around you, how they act normally, and under which circumstances they behave differently. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine the way they see the world. In my book, perception is more important i/r/t people than it is to objects. Mrs. Marple knew that the vicar went to tea at four o'clock and never ate apricot preserves. She didn't know this for any particular reason, but well, if he ends up making an enemy with a penchant for poison, well that information tucked away might well save his life.
posted by SassHat at 8:59 PM on May 26, 2009


…and, now that I've reviewed what's been said so far, I can expand on my answer and try to focus it more to what you're asking for in this way:

In my view, sharpening acuity is much less about strengthening the senses and more about breaking down the bad habits that all of us have. Most of those habits have to do with the comfort and satisfaction we get when we assert an opinion or make a bold statement. To hone observational skills, you have to learn to quiet that part of you that wants to finish observing and say: “I know the truth about this situation.”
posted by koeselitz at 9:07 PM on May 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I really like this, koeselitz:

"To be good at observation is to constantly stay quiet, to constantly wait for the world to reveal itself, to constantly hold off the moment when one turns away, gives up the great work, and draws a conclusion... if you're really observant, you question opinion along with everything else on your way to knowledge, and society often doesn't like that very much."

You've given me a lot to think about.

I have read some of Aristotle, but it never occurred to me to read him under this particular lens. I will certainly take another look.
posted by litterateur at 9:13 PM on May 26, 2009


Thanks!
posted by koeselitz at 9:55 PM on May 26, 2009


When very young I noticed I was seriously deficient in theory of mind so I made a special effort to understand how people thought in various situations as often as possible. It has been enormously helpful.

Brute force analytics too, i.e. walking around a problem/thing/etc and trying every possibility, noting the reaction, and then using the sum of those reactions to either solve the issue or begin the next phase of inquiry. That's all I did with my aerogel experiments.

Lastly, when those two fail, I've got the whole 'eureka' thing down to getting to know a problem (the above works very well) and then taking a break. "Tuning out", like watching TV, doesn't work. I have to go do something I know well and can focus on. Programming, or running (focus on breathing). That gives my subconscious mind time to process the problem. Then I have to trigger the result, which usually happens the next time I'm doing the analytics thing (half the time that's while in the shower... very annoying). It seems to help to sleep on it before trying to trigger the answer. This is the untold story of what happened between #7 and #8 here. That whole page has at least 5 eureka moments going into it. All of them failed and just got me to the last one just after #7, which finally worked.

What I haven't figured out yet is how to gauge how good my solutions are. I've filled a website with all these ideas but ideas are cheap, you know? Often the gut reaction ultra simple solution is best. Developing that just takes practice and a good knowledge of available resources. As an example, I determined the size of the pores in aerogel using food coloring and AskMeFi. I know a guy who did that using a scanning electron microscope and was floored at the accuracy of my results. It was a total accident, of course, but instinct told me I could learn from why the gel didn't take up the food color, and it fell into place.

The aerogel experiments were as much about testing this whole process out as they were about aerogel. My wife and I are totally sick of the stuff now though!
posted by jwells at 6:00 AM on May 27, 2009


Where you want to be is in fact a very tiresome place for many. One of the ways is to consume, obsessively, many different types of media. Extreme pop-media (TV series), extreme science paradigm-pushing media (Stephen Wolfram's speeches on Youtube), time allotted to observing people on the street, politics, investment news, philosophy/history reinterpreted for today, non-commercial movies, books on arts methods in management. Overall, your choice according to your special interests. All sorts of observational patterns will start emerging effortlessly. My reference, though, would be the the movie "Pi", not Sherlock Holmes.
posted by Jurate at 12:07 PM on May 27, 2009


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