Tag: Creativity

The Art of Observation: The Two Types of Observations

The art of observation is more than simply seeing something, but rather a mental process involving both visual and thought.

Often observation involves a conscious or unconscious linking to something that we already know, which brings us to an interesting point on how our training impacts what we deem significant or not.

When we are a novice, all observations are unexpected and worthy of our attention but as we learn more about a field we become more discerning about that which we consider important and noteworthy.


As found in The Art of Scientific Investigation:

It is important to realize that observation is much more than merely seeing something; it also involves a mental process. In all observations there are two elements : (a) the sense-perceptual element (usually visual) and (b) the mental, which, as we have seen, may be partly conscious and partly unconscious. Where the sense-perceptual element is relatively unimportant, it is often difficult to distinguish between an observation and an ordinary intuition. For example, this sort of thing is usually referred to as an observation: “I have noticed that I get hay fever whenever I go near horses.” The hay fever and the horses are perfectly obvious, it is the connection between the two that may require astuteness to notice at first, and this is a mental process not distinguishable from an intuition. Sometimes it is possible to draw a line between the noticing and the intuition, e.g. Aristotle commented that on observing that the bright side of the moon is always toward the sun, it may suddenly occur to the observer that the explanation is that the moon shines by the light of the sun.

The Two Types of Observation

Claude Bernard distinguished two types of observation: (a) spontaneous or passive observations which are unexpected; and (b) induced or active observations which are deliberately sought, usually on account of an hypothesis. […] Effective spontaneous observation involves firstly noticing some object or event. The thing noticed will only become significant if the mind of the observer either consciously or unconsciously relates it to some relevant knowledge or past experience, or if in pondering on it subsequently he arrives at some hypothesis. In the last section attention was called to the fact that the mind is particularly sensitive to changes or differences. This is of use in scientific observation, but what is more important and more difficult is to observe (in this instance mainly a mental process) resemblances or correlations between things that on the surface appeared quite unrelated.

You Need to Discriminate

One cannot observe everything closely, therefore one must discriminate and try to select the significant. When practicing a branch of science, the ‘trained’ observer deliberately looks for specific things which his training has taught him are significant, but in research he often has to rely on his own discrimination, guided only by his general scientific knowledge, judgment and perhaps an hypothesis which he entertains.

Habits Are Important

Powers of observation can be developed by cultivating the habit of watching things with an active, enquiring mind. It is no exaggeration to say that well developed habits of observation are more important in research than large accumulations of academic learning.

Learning to observe

Training in observation follows the same principles as training in any activity. At first one must do things consciously and laboriously, but with practice the activities gradually become automatic and unconscious and a habit is established. Effective scientific observation also requires a good background, for only by being familiar with the usual can we notice something as being unusual or unexplained.

Roger Von Oech: Creative Whack Pack

A nice follow up to the Innovative Whack Pack is the Creative Whack Pack.

Professor Sanjay Bakshi was kind enough to share some of his favorites with Farnam Street readers.

Ask What If?
Creative Whack Pack

Beware the Unintended
Creative Whack Pack

Change Viewpoints
Creative Whack Pack

Check your Timing
Creative Whack Pack: Check Your Timing

Dig Deeper
Creative Whack Pack: Dig Deeper

Make a Metaphor
Creative Whack Pack: Make a Metaphor

Still curious?
I’ve shared six of the cards with you but the Creative Whack Pack has 64 in all, so don’t miss out.

Roger Von Oech: Innovative Whack Pack

You want to be more innovative right?

Professor Sanjay Bakshi shares with Farnam Street readers some of his favorite cards from Roger Von Oech’s Innovative Whack Pack.

Spot the Opportunity

A leading business school did a study that showed that its graduates did well at first, but in ten years, they were overtaken by a more streetwise, pragmatic group. The reason according to the professor who ran the study: “We taught them how to solve problems, not to recognize opportunities.”

Getting Away from the Problem

Archimedes, the third-century BC Greek mathematician, was asked to determine the purity of a gold crown suspected of being adulterated with silver by the crown’s goldsmith. Archimedes knew the weight per volume unit of gold, but since the crown was a holy object, he ruled out solutions such as melting it or hammering it into a measurable cube. After several frustrating weeks of not finding an answer, Archimedes decided to get away from the problem altogether by going to the public baths. There he watched absentmindedly while the water rose with the immersion of his body in the tub. Suddenly inspiration dawned: why not use the same immersion process with the crown? Because gold is denser than silver, he realized that the water would not rise as high for a solid gold crown as for one containing silver.

Update: Part of this is incorrect. A solid gold crown and one containing silver will displace the same amount of water. Because he knew the density of gold, Archimedes was able to compare the density of the crown to that of gold. This allowed him to determine if it was gold, silver, or some combination of the two. For more, see this explanation of calculating density using Archimedes’ water displacement here.

Back Off

In other words, sometimes delaying action can be the best course of action. That’s because while you are waiting, you can gather more information about the most fruitful way to proceed.

For example, designer Christopher Williams tells a story about an architect who built a cluster of large office buildings that were set on a central green. When construction was completed, the landscape crew asked him where he wanted the pathways between the buildings.

“Not yet,” the architect said. “Just plant the grass solidly between the buildings.”

This was done, and by late summer pedestrians had worn paths across the lawn, connecting building to building. The paths turned in easy curves rather than right angles, and were sized according to traffic.

In the fall, the architect simply paved the pathways. Not only did the new pathways have a design beauty, they responded directly to user needs.

Moral: pause for a bit and let the important things catch up with you.

Disrupt Success
Innovative Whack Pack

See the opposite viewpoint
Innovative Whack Pack


(images posted with the permission of Roger Von Oech)

The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas


Do people desire creative ideas? If so, why do we so naturally resist them?

We think that creativity is an important educational goal so why does the research indicate that teachers dislike students who exhibit curiosity and creative thinking?

Three researchers took a stab at the answer:

We offer a new perspective to explain this puzzle. Just as people have deeply-rooted biases against people of a certain age, race or gender that are not necessarily overt (Greenwald & Banaji, 1995), so too can people hold deeply-rooted negative views of creativity that are not openly acknowledged. Revealing the existence and nature of a bias against creativity can help explain why people might reject creative ideas and stifle scientific advancement, even in the face of strong intentions to the contrary.

Creative ideas are novel and useful. Yet idea-evaluators (decision-makers) have a hard time “viewing novelty and practicality as attributes that go hand in hand,” and, in fact, often view them as inversely related.

When endorsing a novel idea, people can experience failure, perceptions of risk, social rejection when expressing the idea to others, and uncertainty about when their idea will reach completion.

And we generally like to avoid uncertainty:

Although the positive associations with creativity are typically the focus of attention both among scholars and practitioners, the negative associations may also be activated when people evaluate a creative idea. For example, research on associative thinking suggests that strong uncertainty feelings may make the negative attributes of creativity, particularly those related to uncertainty, more salient

The authors conclude:

Our results show that regardless of how open minded people are, when they feel motivated to reduce uncertainty either because they have an immediate goal of reducing uncertainty, or feel uncertain generally, this may bring negative associations with creativity to mind which result in lower evaluations of a creative idea.

Source: The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire: But Reject Creative Ideas