April 3, 2012
The Magic of Observation
Creative problem solving requires acute observation. Without it, you miss incredible opportunities and important clues on the pathway to a solution. As children, we are naturally curious and intensely observant as we try to figure out how the world works. As we get older, many of us shut down our natural curiosity and observation skills. We think we understand the world and look for the patterns that we already recognize. We become skilled at predicting what we will experience, and then we experience the things we predict.
It takes considerable effort to focus our attention beyond what we anticipate, especially when we are dealing with familiar experiences. For example, we literally tune out when we’re performing repetitive activities, such as driving or walking on routine paths. We also focus predominantly on things that are at our eye level rather than looking around more broadly. In addition, we pay attention to objects that we expect to find and ignore those things that don’t fit.
Magicians know that we believe we are fully aware of our environment and are paying careful attention to everything that is going on. They understand that almost anything can distract us, including a good story, a joke, or pointing to someone across the room, which draws our gaze away from what is really happening in front of us. Most magic tricks rely upon magicians’ ability to distract us while they perform their sleight of hand.
For example, a magician puts six cards face-up on a table and asks you to select one from the lineup, but not to pick it up. she asks you to memorize that card, keeping this information to yourself. She then tells you that she will read your mind to determine the one card that you selected. She picks up all six cards, looks at them carefully, and puts five cards back down on the table, telling you that the card you selected will be missing from the lineup. she’s right. your card is gone! How did she know?
If you were really paying careful attention, you would see that all five of the cards she placed on the table had changed. The magician didn’t need to know which card was yours. She just had to count on the fact that while you were focusing on one card, you wouldn’t notice the difference between cards that look similar, such as a king of hearts and a king of diamonds; or between a queen of spades and a queen of clubs. Magicians take full advantage of our lack of focus and our ability to be distracted as they make objects appear to disappear, as they cut people in half, and when they pull rabbits out of hats.
On the flip side, humorists draw our attention to the things in our environment that we usually ignore. By focusing our attention on seemingly mundane acts, such as parking a car, brushing our teeth, or waiting in line, we become aware of actions and objects that we don’t normally notice, and they become funny under such focused scrutiny. Jerry Seinfeld is known for his standup comedy about "nothing". The subjects of his humor are funny, because he focuses on experiences that don’t normally grab our attention. They are the little things that we don’t usually notice in our daily life. Here is a short example of a Seinfeld routine on visiting the doctor:
"I hate the waiting room because it’s called the waiting room, so there’s no chance of not waiting. it’s built, designed, and intended for waiting. Why would they take you right away when they’ve got this room all set up? And you sit there with your little magazine. you pretend you’re reading it but you’re really looking at the other people. “i wonder what he’s got.” Then they finally call you, and you think you’re going to see the doctor, but you’re not. you’re going into the next smaller waiting room. now you don’t even have your magazine, and you’ve got no pants on."
This is an excerpt from inGenius: A Crash Course on Creativity