Making an observation 

One sunny spring day, two students were chatting on the sidewalk. A small, black bird landed on the sidewalk near them. It hopped to and fro and pecked at crumbs on the pavement. The girl student said: “Look, a male blackbird.” The other student was surprised: he'd never been much interested in birds and he thought it was pretty clever if some one could identify a particular bird just like that. And to be able to see that it was a male, too! That bordered on pure genius. The second student remarked on this, and now it was the first student's turn to be surprised. “But it's easy!” she replied. And she explained that you can recognise a male blackbird by its size, its black plumage and orange beak. In the ensuing conversation, she pointed out that many different species of bird inhabit towns and cities, and that it's easy enough to get to know them with a pocket bird guide. This aroused the interest of the other student, and also made him think, “If she can do it, then maybe I can, too.”

Indeed, after watching birds and looking them up in a bird guide for a while, our novice birder could also recognise a male blackbird when he saw one. It wasn't so difficult after all; and it didn't take genius.

What does this example tell us? It certainly wouldn't have been the first time that the uninitiated student had seen a blackbird, as it is such a common bird. He must have seen them dozens of times before, yet the observations never entered his consciousness and he forgot about them. In the situation described above, he did not know what he was seeing. At most, he might have seen “something flutter” or “a bird”. When he was told that the bird was a blackbird, his interest was aroused and a whole new world, the world of birds, opened up before him. A world that, until then, he had never consciously seen before.

Interest and concepts

Two conditions must be fulfilled in order to make an observation. First of all, you must be interested. If you are not interested in an object or phenomenon, you are unlikely to make observations about it. Your eyes might see something as it passes by, but it doesn't enter your consciousness. This does not mean that you are completely oblivious. You will undoubtedly be observing other things happening at the same time which do interest you. The second precondition is knowledge. You must know what a male blackbird looks like and how you can distinguish it from other birds. You must be able to give it a name. In other words, you must know the concepts.

Occasionally, something may suddenly catch your eye and the incident may awaken a sense of curiosity, of wanting to know. You become interested in it. And once your interest has been aroused and you have been able to name a bird, you can start learning to identify other birds and your body of concepts grows.

The student in our example became interested in birds when he could first attach a concept to “something fluttering”, thus transforming what he saw into a conscious observation. He bought a bird book and off he went. Suddenly, the town seemed to be full of birds: in trees, fluttering in front of him on the pavement. He literally saw them everywhere. Sometimes, he got a good sighting so that he could look it up in his bird book right away; other times, he only got a glimpse that was enough for him to identify it as a tit, but not which type. The more he observed, the more species he recognised and the larger his body of concepts became.

Gradually, in the course of his investigations, it became easier and easier to recognise birds. How proud the novice birder had been the first time he recognised a tit! Later, he could distinguish the different types of tits, and after a while he could even identify a bird as it sped past. Effortlessly, he identified the blue head of the blue tit, the tuft of the crested tit, and the undulating flight of the wagtail. He saw more details and started noticing other things, too, such as birdsong, the places where the different birds occurred, and their behaviour.

Observations result from having knowledge or concepts of a certain subject. Without concepts there can be no conscious observations. An unconscious, uninterpreted observation can provoke conscious interest, so that this observation might yet be connected with a concept at a later stage.

Your interest in something might be passing; it is not automatically maintained. Your interest needs to be reactivated if you want to make new observations. The first time that you discover something new, and a new world opens up to you, this spark of interest is ignited by enthusiasm which ensures more observations. The flames need to be fed, however, and at a later stage the enthusiasm and interest inside you need to be activated from within.

It only takes one observation to open the door to a new world whose richness is revealed by the interaction between interest and conceptualisation, an interaction that is powered by new observations.

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merel
Blackbird

pimpelmees
Bluetit

Exercises

Go outside and look around. Jot down your observations. Be aware of what you are observing.
Afterwards, compare your observations with others. Did they see things that you didn't notice? Then determine why these things escaped your notice. Was it because they don't interest you, or don't you know the accompanying concepts (for example, you did see a tree, but you didn't know which type of tree it was).

Look at something familiar. Everyday objects are most suitable for this exercise, such as -typefaces in a newspaper, tableware, a rug, or another person's voice. Try to think of questions and concepts that you can use for your observation. Take note of where your interest lies, record your observations and the words that you are using. Draw conclusions from your observations, note which observations and knowledge you have drawn from other fields. Try to find new concepts.

Search your memory for an example in which -you took a passing or lasting interest, and how you then acquired a body of concepts.

© Heirs Tom van Gelder - Stichting AntroVista