Memory is selective, so why is minutiae so important?
Can anyone become detail oriented or is it an ingrained trait? Popular science and psychology would have us believe the latter. Despite evidence to the contrary, the notion persists that humans are either “left-brained” creative or “right-brained” analytical. We would expect that the latter would be more sensitive to picking up details. Untrue. The theory—like many that characterize person- ality—is an oversimplification of neural activity: While some functions are localized in a particular hemisphere, studies show activity on both sides of the brain during the execution of most tasks, including those that require attention to detail. It’s a skill, and like most skills, it can be honed or neglected. So we can, in fact, train our senses to notice subtle details.
Memory plays a crucial role in how we assimilate details. Memory, too, can be strengthened through training, and this training is a prerequisite for learning to pick up on details. One effective way of improving memory, devised in ancient Greece and utilized during the Renaissance, is mastering the mnemonic device known as the “memory palace.” Through this method, vast quantities of information are given a visual and spatial dimension that allows for increased storage and quicker recollection.Why focus on the details, though? The late German philosopher Theodor Adorno insisted on their value to society, particularly concerning music. Rock and pop were abominations to his ear because he believed that, due to what he deemed their musical simplicity, they could be experienced passively and, in turn, lead to a lazy,compliant audience. Conversely, the bracing, atonal compositions of Alban Berg or Beethoven’s late work demand the listener’s intense engagement. Actively focusing on sonic subtleties, Adorno argued, can prime people to pay attention to other details.
Being finely attuned to detail has both advantages and disadvantages. Those who have the ability also run the risk of developing debilitating obsessions. And while it’s a sought-after skill in the workplace, it may blind an employee to the more conceptual levels of problem-solving. In the social realm, it can be challenging for a careful observer to know when to comment or stay silent. These risks notwithstanding, if this trait enables us to slow down and embrace the nuances of our surroundings, we might find that developing it will enrich our lives as well as help us better society.