Scientists could tell you that absolute observation is impossible, due to the sheer amount of information that the brain and the eyes would have to process. “What do you need to see that much anyway? Go on, keep to your own business, someone’s birthmarks and a girl’s high heels are of no interest to you.”
But we don’t really listen to what the scientists say, now, do we?
In one of the better scenes of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Robert’s Sherlock confesses that he sees everything. “It is a blessing. And a curse.” In my experience, it only gets bad when you become Sherlock. Being able to read everybody’s lives within seconds is not only overwhelming, but it becomes tiresome even for the strongest of minds. The road is still long though, so, for the moment, let us focus just on the goodies that serious observation can give us.
My father is very quick to grasp an opportunity to teach me something if that thing is related to a particular film or book I am obsessed with. He did this with my piano lessons when I discovered Pirates of the Caribbean (piano and pirates? Yeah! I’m a Zimmer fan), with swimming after I watched the Olympic Games, origami after a short period of Prison Break (I’ll start rewatching it this summer). He knows that if I am passionate about something, I can channel that in order to achieve the higher qualities of the person in question.
Sherlock was my gateway to deduction and observation skills and my dad introduced me to this method during a family night-out, at a restaurant.
After that dinner, I stopped walking and honoring the bricks 3 feet in front of me with my attention and started looking for details. That hunt for numbers, shapes, colours and especially the hour soon grew into a habit. I hope that, in a few months, I’ll start doing it without thinking about it anymore.
This exercise, which I named The Table Turn, is one of the best ways to work on your observation skills. The idea is that you walk into a public place, you look around for a minute, then you sit, you close your eyes and have your compulsory friend (he can be an imaginary one, nobody will mind) ask you questions.
What sort of questions?
Well, for a start “What time is it?”
Then, if he is Moriarty, “How many girls wear purple shoes? How many cups are chipped? How many people drink coffee?”
You have to answer that. Sherlock wouldn’t even need a second glance. He’ll know it from one attentive look. You won’t catch everything from the start, but as you work on it, you’ll start seeing and remembering more and more. It will work your memory as well, so start reciting poetry afterwards, to check your progress.
Whistle the Sherlock opening titles, walk into the pub and look around.
- For a start, find the location of a clock and read (and memorize) the hour.
- After that, move on to the simple things: how many tables are free and how many are full. How many people are there. How many bartenders. How many chairs.
- Once you can acknowledge that type of information from a first glance, move on to details: how many cue sticks, how many books on the top shelf, how many mugs, how many shot glasses.
- From numbers, you will soon move on to more elaborate questions: what pattern does the carpet have. Who made the cutlery. What are they cooking. Is it a smoking place.
- Focus on sounds and smells as well as on the visual: the way the place smells. What sounds are coming from the outside. What the other people were talking. What the table cloth smelled of.
The real challenge will be observing people. Nobody bothers if you stare at a cupcake for thirty minutes, but they might get uncomfortable (to say the least) if you look at them for too long. This is were subtlety and a bit of acting comes in handy.
- Choose the designated target and look at Mycroft/Irene, absorbing what you can about him/her.
- If Mycroft sees you, you should move your look away as quick as you can or, if you’re a girl and he’s cute, you may have found a friend. Collegue. Friend (shut up, Nunquam, you don’t get a say here).
- A fun way to deal with being caught is to suddenly look behind the person in awe and pretend to have noticed something. If the person sits next to a TV, it will be even easier. Otherwise, a man of no spectacular circumstances may become your lost cousin. You can also text him to annoy him and wait as he calls you back. (That’s what Sherlock would do.)
- If Irene sees you, a way to escape is to keep looking at her. Don’t blink and don’t react if she waves at you. When your investigation is done, you can act as if you’ve just woken up. Your eyes were resting, perfectly normal biological explanation. Of course, you might get a slap in the face and that will get you really awake, but hey! What is life without a bit of a risk?
The game of observing is fun and it will challenge more talents than just your eyes. The senses are an enormous area for research and variation, so profit of what your body has given you and work your way up.
Don’t try too hard. Don’t play the game as if your life depends on it. It might one day, but don’t get pushy or nervous if you can’t remember everything, because then you’d be losing the point and that is to learn.
Enjoy it. Bring friends (if you have Sherlockians in your no-blood-binded family. Lucky you…) and torture them with questions. Develop ways in which you can study a person without her noticing. Write the things you remember in a notebook or on your phone. Do anything you want, as long as you keep faithful to the style and spirit of this exercise.
The Table Turn only proves its worth the day you walk into a bar, you sit at a table and could tell a random stranger everything there is to see in the place in 20 seconds. Sherlock does it in 3. Can you beat that record?