D is for Detail

[part of the Pagan Blog Project]

One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is details. How many are useful. How many are too many right now. Which ones matter.

And I’ve been thinking about which of those details we notice, which ones we pay attention to (but aren’t fully aware of) and which ones just pass us by.

Here’s my theory: we, as humans, build up a vast library of stuff we pattern match against. Some of it most humans get sooner rather than later (this thing will burn you, that thing hurts when dropped on your toe, this furry purring cat thing is pretty awesome unless you’re allergic.) But a lot of them are very individual – we are going to be much much better at dealing with patterns we’ve spent more time around than ones we haven’t. And knowing that, and paying attention to what it means, can make our lives much easier.

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink talks about this: he discusses the idea of thinslicing, the idea that as we build up those extensive patterns in the places we spend the most time, and that we will recognise when something doesn’t match those patterns, even if we can’t pin down exactly what we’re seeing.

(He uses an example of an art historian spotting a fake as an example. He also talks about the ways these first glance decisions can fail us, extensively, as well.)

Now, these patterns are fluid. I can look at a post on a online discussion – I have spent so many hours in online discussions I cannot begin to count – and I can say “There is something there.”

Sometimes it’s a good something – someone who I keep an eye on, and they turn out to be really interesting. Sometimes it’s a not-so-good something, and there are difficult interactions later on. (There have been months in which I’ve tracked both of these things regularly, and seen how they came out later, by the way.)

And a lot of the time, it’s a bit more complicated than that – what I actually get from that thinslicing is “Huh, person interesting on points A, B, and C, but they seem a bit touchy about thing Q, and it looks like X, Y, and Z aren’t in their view of the world at all.” Both the good and the bad (from my point of view) as it were.

I do it, mostly, without thinking about it. The same way I walk into hotels and evaluate their usefulness for conventions (as I do, having run hotel for a few too many conventions at this point in my life), or into a public building and check for the exits (too many years working in a school with regular drills). Humans are pattern-makers.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that we can shape these patterns, too. I have started looking at the stars a lot- for reasons that are probably obvious when you realise I moved from a city to a place with really excellent stargazing eighteen months ago. I can see hundreds of stars from my front porch, and if I drive a couple of miles, I will be up on the top of a hill with an amazing vista, and no visible artificial light of any kind.

But I have *never* been a visual learner. I’ve always been very good at colour, and good at spatial relationships. But actual visual patterns, not so much. (I am horrible with most plants, for example, unless I can smell them or taste them.) And yet, I keep looking up at the stars. Slowly, my ability to make sense of visual things is changing. (And I can now identify half a dozen constellations at one glance, rather than just two.)

I saw this even more directly at one point in my Craft training. Like many groups, our training involved a number of guided meditation things. Unlike some meditations, ours always included a fair number of other sensory cues – the feel of the ground beneath our feet, the smells in the air, the temperature, textures we touched, sounds we heard, and much more. And because of that, I’d always been able to follow.

But in the midst of my training, I began playing World of Warcraft regularly. Fairly casually, compared to many people I know – by which I mean 10-12 hours most weeks, often as a way to keep up with friends. But enough. And I found, as I did so, that my ability to process visual data in meditation got a lot better. I got a lot more sense of myself moving in a visual space – because I *had* to, to function in the game. (Because while the game also gave me speed and spatial relationship cues, it wasn’t my physical body that was moving much.) And even though I’ve moved back into much more text-based stuff, generally, that skill has stuck with me.

And I got a lot more aware of a number of details of my body, after doing Feldenkrais lessons after my health crashed, as way to help me use the energy and focus I had much more effectively. (Feldenkrais is a whole other blog post, in terms of the Craft implications, but you can read a post from 2011 about my experiences with it recovering from the health foo over on my Dreamwidth blog.)

My point here is that the places we learn to see details can come from surprising parts of our lives. If we let them.

Right. Back to research and evaluating and Paganism. My point here is that as pattern-forming humans, we will eventually build up a set of patterns in our heads.

We hope these will be useful patterns. “Hey, this author cites their sources” is a useful thing to notice automatically. “This person is clear about distinctions between Wicca and witchcraft and Paganism” is a good thing. “This person just plain defines their terms so I know what they mean”, likewise.

But we also need to be careful that we’re pattern-matching on the right things. “This publisher publishes lousy books” is not always true. And it’s even less true if you’re predicating your pattern on what they published 15 years ago, not what they’re currently publishing. If we’re going to thinslice, try moving it a step or two further to the individual item, and looking at the details of that item, rather than stopping with ‘everything this publisher ever made’.

The same thing is true with sites or people’s comments or whatever online. There’s so much out there we’re never going to read all of it. But I try to hold myself to the standard of engaging with what’s actually there, in the details, not just my personal preferences. A site that’s all over pink or orange  or that uses terms in a way that bugs me is not the thing I prefer – but if I found it because of a meaningful search string, chances are it’s worth my time to look briefly, and see why it came up. (Again, I’m talking “a minute or three” here, not “read exhaustively”.)

And then, as I suggested above, leave space for your patterns to change, as you learn more. Being locked into the patterns you set when you were new to a subject can be one of the fastest ways to stop yourself learning.

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