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How to Improve Your Power of Observation: Lessons for Would-Be Writers

Updated on June 13, 2013

The secret to sharpening your power of observation is intention and focus, just exactly like what Jesus said 2,000 over years ago: "Seek, and ye shall find."


Have you ever driven along a road several times, without even once noticing the existence of a shop or a signpost there? If yes, is it because your power of observation is weak?

Truth is that the human body has an inbuilt defence mechanism to prevent us from suffering what is called "sensory overload". Sensory overload happens when any one of our sensory organs is overstimulated by the surroundings, e.g. by noise or smell. And with so many things clamoring for our attention, our eyes only see what our mind focuses its attention on.

I have never before been consciously aware of the body's shutdown mechanism to sensory overload until I joined a chocolate-manufacturing plant, when I was 35. On my first day of work, I told one of my new colleagues: "The cocoa aroma makes the working environment here very conducive. I won't mind, even if the salary is slightly less." He smiled and retorted: "Tell me again after 2 weeks." And sure enough, after just 5 days, I could not smell the aroma anymore for the 5 years that I was working there.

Truth is that our body does not know exactly what to shut down and what not to shut down. At any moment, It will just shut down whatever we are not focusing our attention on, or when there is sensory overload. However, unlike our sense of smell, we can consciously choose to reactivate whatever sights that have been shut down, merely by focusing our attention on it.

The technique

Jesus said, "Seek, and ye shall find."

A classmate of mine was very impressed as to how his friend could spot a policeman from afar. This classmate used to ride a motorcycle and would sometimes give the friend a lift, without a helmet, whenever they meet unexpectedly. Many times, they managed to avoid being caught by the police because the friend could spot the police from afar and got down in time. One day, my classmate was so curious as to how his friend could be so sharp. He finally found out that his friend would be looking in all directions while pillion-riding, while my classmate was busy chatting away with him. The secret to sharpening our power of observation is, therefore, intention and concentration.

Just like any other skills, concentration is an art that can be learned and developed through regular practice. In his book, Helping Yourself With ESP, A.G. Manning, D.D. teaches a method on how to sharpen your power of concentration. His technique is to find a simple object, such as an old, wooden pencil and to make a list of everything that you can observed about it. To make your observation more organized, you can categorize them into, say:

  • Colors;
  • Shapes;
  • Materials;
  • Unique features; and
  • Potential uses.

For each of these categories, list down as many observations as you can, e.g. under "Colors":

  • Pencil lead: Dark grey;
  • Sharpened end of pencil: Various shades of brown and grey;
  • Pencil shaft: Yellow, with black vertical stripes, chipped here and there, with bare wood showing through;
  • Metal eraser holder: Brass ring, with two circular grooves;
  • Eraser: Pink, with smudges of black and grey.

For "Potential Uses", you may think of:

  • Writing/Drawing (obvious uses);
  • Erasing;
  • Weapon (to stab someone or as an arrow);
  • Stirring rod;
  • Dipstick;
  • Lever
  • Hair-roller;
  • Fuel;

and many more. Your power of observation will increase drastically as you practise focusing your whole attention on one subject at a time. By practising this exercise on a different object each day for 2 weeks, A.G. Manning says that you will be on your way to mastering the art of observation. Use simple objects at first, such as a pair of scissors, a knife, a fork, a mirror, etc. When you feel that you are good enough, try something more complicated, such as a flower or a cellphone. You should feel that you could fill a whole book with the details of just one rose. Practice makes perfect! When your concentration is well-sharpened, you would be ready to apply it to solving real-life problems.

How to Improve Your Concentration with Yogasutra

A healthy mind and body

Needless to say, in order to sharpen your observation, you would need to be alert. And to be alert, you will need a healthy mind and body. Apart from regular exercises, there are also special yoga techniques to improve your mind and body (see video on the right). However, these techniques are beyond the scope of this discussion. All that I want to point out is that the healthier your body, the better is your ability to sharpen your power of observation.

Benefits of improving your concentration

As mentioned above, when your power of concentration is well-sharpened, you can apply it to solving real-life problems. Your improved power of concentration can help you to clearly define and analyze your problem, as well as provide you with various solutions.

As a matter of fact, your improved power of concentration can also help you to become a better writer. It is often said that to write a great novel, we must incorporate the 5 senses in the narrative. This allow the reader to feel the emotions of the characters, thereby drawing him or her deeper into the novel. Your depiction of your characters also becomes more realistic, e.g.:

"On that bleak hill-top the earth was hard with a black frost, and the air made me shiver through every limb. Being unable to remove the chain, I jumped over, and, running up the flagged causeway bordered with straggling gooseberry-bushes, knocked vainly for admittance, till my knuckles tingled and the dogs howled." -- Wuthering Heights

An afterword

In the below video, Tony Buzan says that you can also improve your power of concentration by playing mind sports, chess, bridge, and crosswords, as well as memory and creativity games. "Anything to get your brain actively thinking analytically, strategically, or creatively will make your brain capable of phenomenal focus, attention, and concentration".

As you can see, there is not just one technique to improve your power of concentration and observation. However, as someone passionate in writing, I prefer A.G. Manning's technique because it involves words. Decide which technique is best for you. This article is not exhaustive and only aims at trying to trigger your interest in sharpening your power of observation.

Tony Buzan: How To Improve Your Concentration


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