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Does the observer affect the observed?

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The world is our oyster and it is up to each of us to make our own discovery based on our own courage and resolution of observation. There is what is called "observational layers" which determine the flow of data we perceive and process when actively engaged in thinking, analysis and synthesis of information received. Bandura explains that there are "phases of observational learning". These four stages are: 1. Attention: an individual notices something in his or her environment; 2. Retention: the individual remembers what is observed; 3. Reproduction: the individual mimics or reproduces an action that is a copy of what is observed; and 4. Motivation: the environment provides a payoff or punishment, which will determine whether or not the behavior is repeated.

Bandura’s theory appears to work for humans at any learning stage in life. It recognizes that observation is a fluid activity in which we actively participate. We appear to always be searching to neatly place experiences into a box or category, which is familiar to us. As we mature intellectually, we are able to see patterns and repetition in terms of data and ideas that we absorb. We consciously and unconsciously test these ideas for authenticity, congruency and compatibility with our existent body of knowledge and experience. This system of discovery and learning can serve us satisfactorily in many, but not all circumstances.

Many times in our society’s general body of wisdom and knowledge, profound changes occur, as new information is uncovered and new discoveries are made. When this happens, we say that a paradigm shift has occurred in our culture. The old, traditional way of understanding is insufficient and not very helpful. To gain any type of mastery over the new data we must employ a new set of eyes. The term "systems analysis" is sometimes used to describe the process of looking, thinking, and learning about the world thru a larger prism. This process envisions a more holistic approach. It is more about looking at the forest instead of only the trees.

To understand a system, we must understand the underlying history that goes along with it, as well as being aware of the parts that make up the whole. A holistic approach is beneficial as it takes several interdependent factors into account. So often, particularly in the field of medicine, specialists make observations based on a model, which centers on a particular problem in a particular system of the body. There has not traditionally been a consideration for the holistic mind/body connection in the body’s overall health. Or to observe a sociological issue, if we were to look at the influence of various minority groups in the overall "browning" of the population of the American demographic, we would have to be aware of the historical immigration policy of the country at the same time that we studied the new immigrant groups populating the country in the 21st century. As we want to be able to make sound predictions about the way our countries racial makeup will look in the future, we have to be aware of all the population trends that affect this outcome.

Just as important as observing and synthesizing new information, we should be able to put the information to good use, that is, we should learn to put the observation to a use that maximizes our potential and provides a satisfactory outcome for us. Knowledge is to be embraced and not feared. As we use our refined abilities of observation, we should be able to make predictions about future outcomes, which come close to reality.

Each individual in society is a free agent to a certain extent. We influence others around as do others influence ourselves. It only follows then, that we can influence the behavior of a system since we are a part of that system. The Greek have a term called "metanoia", which is loosely defined as "a shift of the mind". I think of it as possessing a flexible, active mind, which has the capacity to envision a wide range of possibilities. Often, we become conservative and safe in our way of thinking because we are comfortable in our own niche. However, our society moves so quickly in terms of innovation and change that, in order to be an active, participating member, it is necessary to move outside of stagnant ways of thinking.

Important concepts in the new approach to a shift in thinking involve individuals and organizations. These concepts involve the discipline of: systems thinking (an awareness of the whole), personal mastery (active individual involvement in learning), mental model (personal vision creation), building shared visions (involves working with other particularly in an organization), and team building (within an organization). Many problems facing individuals and organizations are complex and the solutions are complex. The more brainpower brought to the task, that stronger the solution may be. Organizations must always guard against "groupthink" and it not hard for an individual’s contributions and ideas to be disregarded, but when everyone respects each other’s unique contribution, positive results can result.

It is also worth noting that sometimes, the insight or solution worth observing is not a new concept but rather an older historical truth that was overlooked because we did not possess the correct observational perspective to understand its benefit. An example would be the field of homeopathic health remedies. There has been written evidence of early Egyptian homeopathic medicine and its benefit in human beings. This information has been available for observation for several thousand years. But by using the standards of "modern" scientific analysis these early practices were not considered helpful for many years. It has only recently been acknowledged that certain plants and herbs have discernible health benefits. As they say, " to a hammer, everything looks like a nail". It is important to suspend your judgment when observing phenomena. That way you allow for a broader range of possible solutions.

As our nation becomes more racially diverse, with immigrants from all parts of the world, our country has the unique perspective and opportunity to incubate, examine and troubleshoot many of the issues that may come about in the future. This is true because the more ethnic and racial diversity we have in our population, the more points of view we incorporate. This can be observed as a weakness or strength. It depends on the observer’s preconceived notions about sharing in problem -solving and also about the observer’s feelings about the people he or she is asked to work with.

In summation, the observer always affects what is observed. And that is not negative if the observer has a conceptual framework, which is open-minded and holistic.



J.H. Breasted. The Edwin Smith Surgical Paprus. 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1930)

M. Levey. "Some Objective Factors of Babylonian Medicine in the Light of New Evidence. Bulletin Of Historical medicine (1961), pp.61-70