Lafayette Library's Science Cafe: Improving observational skills
By Lou Fancher
"Anyone can draw and everyone can try a new way of observing," the naturalist and wildlife illustrator/educator told a Science Cafe audience at the Lafayette Library and Learning Center.
Science Cafes feature experts explaining the science behind everyday items and phenomena, from coffee to pianos to computer animation to honey bees. Laws is a research associate of the California Academy of Science in San Francisco and author/illustrator of "The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds," "The Laws Guide to the Sierra Nevada," and other publications.
But even with evidence from an expert, it's hard for most people to believe they can draw. And harder yet to believe how often they look, but fail to see, when using their eyes.
Admitting our visual bias, Laws said, "The science of how we observe and remember has taught us our ability isn't as good as we think."
To demonstrate, he displayed a sentence on a large screen and asked people to count the "f's." Most people saw only the words that began with the letter, but missed the word "of."
"Isn't that odd?" Laws asked. "When 'f' sounds like a 'v,' we miss it. Turns out, there's prescreening our brains are doing, even before the data comes in."
Mind-wandering, labeling, or tossing out distracting elements will often lead to faded details or missing something entirely.
"And looking hard at something isn't worthwhile," Laws said. "Once birders "nail" (label) a bird, they've nailed themselves. Even the birds in my books are lies because no two birds look exactly the same. They're as different from each other as we are."
Laws, whose full name often leads people to believe he's a descendant of environmentalist John Muir, said, "I'm named after a different John Muir, but I inherited his love for the biodiversity of the planet." Through the eyes of his young daughter he recently had "a revolution in my thinking about how to observe nature."
Laws said a three-step approach and a few extra tips open the path to seeing nature in richer detail.
"Speak," he advised. "Say out loud the specific details of what you're observing. Turns out, if we look with our mouths, our brains register it more. Every detail will stay with you longer."
Asking questions is "intentional curiosity" and a second practice that leads to observational mastery -- but it takes overcoming social bias to achieve it, Laws said.
"We admire people who have answers to every question. They get the big paycheck, especially us men. We either make something up or we deflect it to (a subject) where we can still sound like authoritarians. For a scientist, questions are the real goal. That's where things become fun."
Using "It reminds me of," when observing nature builds connections, something our brains are hard-wired to form and retain. "There's a relationship, a coincidence, associations that make them stick in your head," he said.
Allowing audience members to practice all three skills by observing videos of animals in nature or each other -- and verbalizing out loud what they saw or were reminded of -- the exercise revealed bonuses beyond more accurate observation.
"When you practice with other people, you'll find that others think about things that never occurred to you -- and I noticed that everyone was smiling," Laws said. "It's easier to fall in love with a place or a thing. Love, in relation to nature or to a partner, is sustained compassionate attention."
Laws' final tips were aimed at changes in how we habitually perceive nature and ourselves. Drop the binoculars to notice the larger context, he told birders. Take notes, not photographs, to notice changes that often happen slowly in nature, he suggested to camera buffs. And for everyone, sketch with basic shapes, like circles, triangles and squares. "Drawing isn't a gene, it's a skill you get by doing it everyday," he said.
Using "I notice, I wonder, it reminds me of," Laws suggested, is just everyday science.