Three main gears of observation (and where to begin with them)

Observation means to take notice of something. It means gathering data, leaving out noise, and making conclusions about something. Observation is required to prove theories, and it has been used for millennia: philosophers, inventors, and scientists made possible our world through observation.

Truth within the fiction

I love thrillers, I always have. Many characters from literature became popular due to their ability to solve mysteries. And that was possible because they could observe particulars otherwise unseen, and understand the big picture.

  • Sherlock Holmes deduced “waterfalls from a drop” (paraphrasing his own words) – gathered data to make cognitive inferences.
  • Hercule Poirot used both cognitive and social intelligence to draw his conclusions, taking notice of how people behaved and reacted in certain circumstances.
  • Auguste Dupin, Jules Maigret, and Will Graham used to emotionally identify with the criminal they were chasing.

However inspiring, all these characters are fictional. And yet, something can be taken out of the novels they were protagonists.

You can improve your ability to observe to live better. Taking notice of what happens around you is useful to perform better at work, and even have some fun.

We rather lost our ability to observe because we always look at the blinding screen of our smartphones, but that’s something you can change.

Other than the classic formula “focus and attention”, there are three main gears you must take into consideration to improve your observational skills, and you don’t need to work on all three at once.

I will now identify them, explain why they matter and how to work on them.


We are our memory. We remember ourselves, what we were and how we became who we are today. We learn because we have a memory – or rather two kinds:

  • Our cognitive memory is the way we store information, and
  • our emotional memory is how we perceive and remember them.

That’s how we forget trauma, and also why we remember extremely stupid but funny stuff, while we can’t have a hold on boring mathematical formulas.

(I wrote more on the matter in this article: “Learn and Forget!“).

One of the reasons why learning is hard is because we forgot how to use well our memory. We focus on repetition rather than quality, and we also try to remember everything. Then, we are frustrated because we have low retention, akin to a goldfish.

How to harness the full power of our memory?

My suggestion: Magnetic Memory Method

Also known as MMM, it has been developed by Dr. Anthony Metivier, to whom I refer in some of my previous articles and even in my recent book about the philosophy of dialogue. The method is built around the technique of the memory palace but is much more than that.

Anthony Metivier is an expert on memory and has a solution to almost anything when it comes to remembering anything better (read it “more effectively and efficiently”). You can find his free course by visiting his homepage: Anthony also shares updates, suggestions, and new techniques on his YouTube channel.

Here is why I recommend it:

The Magnetic Memory Method aims to optimize long-term memory by simultaneously enhancing our use of short-term memory. In practice, is to hold information longer in our minds, so that we come back later and fixate it.

To do that, Anthony’s method makes large use of observation. Visual memory is the core of his framework, and it is supported by emotional, acoustic, tactile (kinaesthetic), and olfactive stimuli. Anything we experience can be used to strengthen the markers we want to use to stick information to our brain “like a magnet on the fridge”.

It makes you shift to a qualitative approach for remembering things, where spatial repetition becomes just a part of the equation.

You will begin to take notice of more things around – like the names and the faces of people you want to remember, the plate number of the car that almost hit you, the shopping list without needing to write it down, and so on.

Situational Awareness

We can describe situational awareness as our immediate reception and understanding of what is happening around us. Some would say that is a form of mindfulness, but it is a mistake.

Mindfulness accounts for how we are in the environment; situational awareness applies to everything else. However, mindfulness is important to enhance our perception of our surroundings, although it is impossible to be 100% in such a state at any time during the day. You are applying situational awareness if:

  • You begin to notice little changes in the tone of voice, sweating, and facial expressions of your conversational partner, so you infer the underlying emotions
  • Without much looking around, you immediately realize that somebody has been in your room
  • You are aware of little things, from the smell of the freshly cut grass to the persistent stink of a cigarette somebody smoked hours ago
My suggestion: read the works of Joe Navarro, Paul Ekman, and Ben Cardall

In this regard, the work of Ben Cardall is very useful to read the environment. Cardall is a “deductionist”. In his words, he used Sherlock Holmes as a role model and reference to build up knowledge of immediate use to read people from their belongings. His sole publication to this day is The Monographs, which I recently reviewed.

On the other hand, Joe Navarro and Paul Ekman have built their eminence in the area of non-verbal communication. As a former FBI agent, Navarro built up an impressive field experience in non-verbal patterns, even producing research and books. Ekman produced a huge job on facial expressions, micro-expressions, and emotional awareness.

Whatever the approach, you need constant practice to understand what’s going on behind the spoken words, and modulate your reactions accordingly. It is even more valuable if you are working on your emotional competencies and social skills.

Here is why I recommend it:

If we break down situational awareness, we see that it consists of three sequential steps:

  1. observing and perceiving the surrounding environment;
  2. understanding the situation;
  3. make a prediction about the immediate future

You can begin by observing your belongings and then move to others. If you think that body language is more valuable for you, you can have a look at The Dictionary of Body Language. You will notice how your situational awareness will gradually increase over time.

It becomes even more interesting if you combine this practice with a memory system. I found out that for me, remembering non-verbals is easier than anything else.

Use Cases and Practice

Of course, one thing is to build up knowledge, and another one is to leverage it in real scenarios. Besides practicing alone, you might need a “partner in crime”, or at least some reference where you can get feedback.

My suggestion: communities of practice and games

There are different ways to do that. For example: if you get into memory training, you might find it interesting to join some memory competitions.

Some communities are rather “passive”: you just consume information but in a different way. This is the way I prefer, for I haven’t yet found a local friend with whom I could play “the deduction game”. Jordan Accardo (aka The Art of Deduction) and Logan Portenier (aka Observe) do this on YouTube based on the works of Paul Ekman and Ben Cardall.

Essentially, you don’t improve observation just by knowing about it. You need to work around it, whatever the approach you are going to use. Also, think about the context where you are applying your newly found knowledge.

Communities are one example, the other is games. Escape Rooms (both physical and virtual) are great to test your ability to observe by situational awareness and problem-solving. Using flashcards for facial expressions is both useful and enjoyable to learn and better recall body-language patterns.

The list could continue, but that’s for another article!


Memory is essential to observation and there are frameworks like the Magnetic Memory Method, which uses multiple perceptions and memory palaces.

Situational awareness is the ability to gather intel mindfully from the environment and the people around us. To improve it, we should learn more about body language or try making inferences. I shared some book titles on the topic.

Experience is important, for observation and the related skills are practical. You must join communities of practice where you can discuss and gather feedback, or play games to test what you learned.

Published by Andrea Paviglianiti

I practice coaching, I love reading, and I work as a data scientist. I also recharge my batteries with meditation, martial arts, and video games. I perform career and skills coaching – thus I define myself as a “cognitive” coach: I help people improve their learning experience to succeed where they want. My method is based on behavioral analysis, psychology of learning, philosophy of dialogue, and classic literature. I write about how to get better at learning, the best books I read, and my personal philosophy of coaching. And I will not lie to you – I can get verbose at times! I’d be happy if you stick around and read more of what I have to share!

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