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The Truth is Always Made of Details

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If you were instructed to draw a leaf, you might draw a green, vaguely eye-shaped thing with a stem. But when you study a real leaf, say an elm leaf, it’s got much more going on than that drawing. It has rounded serrations along its edges, and the tip of each serration is the end of a raised vein, which runs from the stem in the middle. Tiny ripples span the channels between the veins, and small capillaries divide each segment into little “counties” with irregular borders. I could go on for pages.

If you could look even closer (and you can with a microscope) the detail would continue to unfold essentially forever, or at least until you reach the molecular scale, where it all becomes unfathomable to the human mind anyway. Unlike objects in a digital photo, or human ideas about what those objects are, real things exist in essentially infinite resolution.

The principle holds for everything. Looking closer always reveals more, and it’s often not what you’d expect. Archie Andrews’s orange hair (in the comics anyway) is actually rows of printed red dots. The tops of your knuckles have miniscule lines that make diamonds and triangles. Sand, examined on your fingertips, is made of a few distinct types of grains, none of which are quite the color of “sand.”

Once and future castle

Kids spend a lot of their time zooming their attention in like that, hunting for new details. Adults tend to stay fairly zoomed out, habitually attuned to wider patterns so they can get stuff done. The endless detail contained within the common elm leaf isn’t particularly important when you’re raking thousands of them into a bag and you still have to mow the lawn after.

Even as adults, though, we retain this ability to intentionally zoom into, or out of, the details. Essentially, whenever you pay attention to something, you can dial the resolution up and down.

If you’re listening to crowd noise, for example, you can listen to it as a uniform, undifferentiated sound, or you can tune into to the individual voices that together make up the experience of “crowd noise.” When you ride a bike, it’s a bike. When you fix a bike, it’s dozens of interconnecting parts, each with its own function and condition. These parts must be seen and understood on that level of resolution in order to fix it.

Understood only by close friends

More detail, about anything, can be revealed by looking closer and resisting the urge to summarize. When you’re watching a football game from the stands, you might see a group of purple-clad players battling for turf with a group of white-clad players, and the score is 17-10. If you stood down at the sidelines with one of the teams, you’d see them as a highly varied group of individuals, each with a different look, attitude, and presence. If you talked to them, you’d learn how each player has his own thoughts about the game and his performance in it. Each play of the game (there might be 150 or so) is made of twenty-two personal athletic performances, each of which is made of a number of physical actions, each of which — if you could see even closer — is made of thousands of muscular fiber contractions, and so on.

The “game” is all of that stuff too. Everything is made of details. Zooming back out, even further this time, the whole game could be expressed as a single number in the win column of the league standings that year.

Dialing up the Resolution

There’s no need to break everything in life down to molecules. All of those levels of “happening” exist at once. I think there’s a lot to gain, though, by dialing up the resolution a little beyond our default settings, and attending slightly more to the details end of day-to-day life than habit would dictate.

Amounts to one or a zero

There’s no special trick to this other than to stay curious about details, even when the thing in question already seems familiar and feels basically “understood.” You’re just looking closer, to see more of what’s already there: the sounds that make up the noise, the life forms and materials that make up a city park, the assumptions, hopes, and truth claims that make up an opinion. Everything is details all the way down, even when we think we’re looking at a simple leaf or football game.

Sensory experience is the obvious place to start. What happens when you look, feel, smell, and taste things as though they’re new to you, even when they’re not? Study the juice vesicles as you eat the orange, like a kid might. Notice how the sound changes right as you take the kettle off the element. Listen to the words that come out of the person speaking, rather than grappling with what you think they’re getting at.

As every child discovers

The goal here isn’t to steady the mind or gain superhuman focus, only to rediscover that everything in life consists of bottomless detail, that we can attune to those things on a variety of levels, and that perhaps we put too much faith in relatively low-resolution impressions of them.

Playing with resolution applies to ideas too. The higher the resolution at which you explore a topic, the more surprising and idiosyncratic it becomes. If you’ve ever made a good-faith effort to “get to the bottom” of a contentious question — Is drug prohibition justifiable? Was Napoleon an admirable figure? — you probably discovered that it’s endlessly complicated. Your original question keeps splitting into more questions. Things can be learned, and you can summarize your findings at any point, but there is no bottom.

Built excellent sanitation systems, it turns out

The Information Age is clearly pushing us towards low-res conclusions on questions that warrant deep, long, high-res consideration. Consider our poor hominid brains, trying to form a coherent worldview out of monetized feeds made of low-resolution takes on the most complex topics imaginable — economic systems, climate, disease, race, sex and gender. Unsurprisingly, amidst the incredible volume of information coming at us, there’s been a surge in low-res, ideologically-driven views: the world is like this, those people are like that, X is good, Y is bad, A causes B. Not complicated, bro.

For better or worse, everything is infinitely complicated, especially those things. The conclusion-resistant nature of reality is annoying to a certain part of the adult human brain, the part that craves quick and expedient summaries. (Social media seems designed to feed, and feed on, this part.)

Just as smart, relatively few hot takes

The human mind does have some ability to summarize, and deal constructively in low-res abstractions, but that’s the new, fledgling part. We’re mostly built for a high-resolution relationship to the world. No matter how driven we are to theorize and formulate, we’re still a creature that can discern a dry leaf from a damp one by scent alone. We can sense subtle shifts in someone’s intentions during a conversation, and somehow tell instantly when the dog has done something bad, but we couldn’t fully describe a banana to save our lives.

I can’t help but think we’d benefit from a conscious intention to see things in terms of their details again, dialing up the default resolution at which we engage with both our experiences and our ideas.

The world exists in infinite resolution, and that’s what we’re built for. The truth is made of details, and they go all the way down. Any ideas about it just rest on the top.


Photos by Ash Edmonds, magnifiedsand.com, mustachecactus, Zabdiel Gonzalez, Jessica Lewis, and Andrea Appani

Mike October 5, 2023 at 11:15 pm
David Cain October 6, 2023 at 9:48 am

Will read! Thanks Mike.

Maaike October 6, 2023 at 2:43 am

Have you read the book “I Am a Strange Loop” (author: Douglas Hofstadter)?
I think you would greatly enjoy it!

David Cain October 6, 2023 at 9:48 am

No but I am in love with the title

Rocky October 6, 2023 at 4:57 am

The truth is more important than the facts….Frank Lloyd Wright

David Cain October 6, 2023 at 9:50 am

Exactly! Statements of fact are relatively clunky summaries of reality.

kid October 6, 2023 at 5:06 am

Nice one.

The paradox I keep running into – to take action you need to zoom out and maybe pick a few semi details for orientation. I’m not too great at that and in awe of people who can do this non stop.
Do they take the best action that’s reasonably possible to envision – not necessarily – but to take such action you need an incredible skill of embracing many details (and even more in modern world) and synthesising them while still giving them justice. That’s just breaks the brain, not to mention trying to explain to anyone.
So we are left with quick generalisations and random ‘fun’ details as a way to move forward.

David Cain October 6, 2023 at 9:53 am

I think I’m a particularly hard case in this regard. I can’t keep many pieces of information on my mental “desktop” at once.

Steve October 6, 2023 at 7:07 am

Well written David.

A wonderful reminder for us to slow down sometimes and take in information at walking pace instead of highway speeds.

This post should be required reading for all voters before the 2024 election.

David Cain October 6, 2023 at 9:56 am

Slowing down and sorting out is increasingly harder to do. Modernity doesn’t just offer more information to process, but it demands more processing from us. Normal life requires us to have more relationships with more agencies and institutions, more metrics, more considerations overall.

Melinda October 6, 2023 at 7:20 am

I read your words every time I get them, rarely do I comment, but I always want to. As my mind falls into the molecules of appreciation and distance I get overwhelmed by thinking a small comment is not enough for the feelings I’m feeling. This time of reading about details I have 4am moments to say thank you. Thank you! I’d love to spend 3 hours on a bus with you.

David Cain October 6, 2023 at 9:58 am

If we ever end up on a bus together I will happily deliver a 3-hour monologue about this :)

Seriously though I know what you mean. Words are very low-res compared to the things we’re trying to describe with them. As a writer I am always trying to convey feelings and insights that are ultimately not conveyable. I just try to get closer but I never get there.

Tony October 6, 2023 at 7:32 am

This is another post that I am already building a closing topic for my students. Your skill in breaking apart one aspect of being human and giving a voice to that single idea feels more valuable than the whole aspect of being alive [at the moment]. I look forward to discovering a more high-resolution view of my daily world.

David Cain October 6, 2023 at 10:02 am

Thanks Tony. This post is probably short on actionable advice but hope you can put the concept to use.

Jessica October 6, 2023 at 9:25 am

Beautifully written, and such a wonderful reminder once again, to slow down and pay attention to the details. I feel overwhelmed so much of the time, with the fast pace of life, the information shoved down my throat, and the “certain part of the adult human brain, the part that craves quick and expedient summaries.” Thank you so much for sharing your ideas with the world, it is immensely needed.

Hansel Harlan October 6, 2023 at 10:07 am

As Heraclitus observed some 2500 years ago, “Whosoever wishes to know about the world must learn about it in its particular details.

Thanks for the post. Very enjoyable.

David Cain October 6, 2023 at 10:28 am

I really like that because the corollary is that you can’t know about the world in general. It’s too big, too diverse, too complex. Zillions of nested details about every conceivable thing would need to be accounted for. One of my hobby-horse rants is that people speak about the “State of the world today,” as though there is such thing as a coherent summary of the state of the whole world. It’s like trying to understand something from a twenty-pixel photograph of a football-field-sized circuit board — useless. Basically people are just describing a few feelings they have about one or two events.

Pebbles October 6, 2023 at 10:15 am

This resonates with me as I’m a “chunk up” person learning to “chunk down” having gone back to full time study. Social media and modern life just screams “bullet points” at me, and so much richness is lost. Spending more time in nature allows me space to look at the beauty that I miss in the current of a timescale that is not my own.

David Cain October 6, 2023 at 10:34 am

The paradoxical thing is that infinite detail is available in every moment, if you view experience that way. The mind fixates on bullet points and “chunks” but literally every moment is made of bottomless sensory detail. That’s what I use mindfulness skills for — seeing the forest for the trees, or really not just the trees, the leaves and all their little veins. Every moment has that right there, because it’s all just experience.

Mason October 6, 2023 at 11:24 am

Wow. Beautifully written, so many great insights, and arriving at just the right time for me. I’ll keep coming back to this one.

Thank you for all your writings.

nrhatch October 6, 2023 at 12:16 pm

This reminded me of William Blake’s “To See a World…”
(Fragments from “Auguries of Innocence”

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

And, you hit the nail on the head ~> we cannot fathom the truth of reality based solely on sound bites. A bit more deep diving is required.

Diane October 6, 2023 at 1:34 pm

Thank you. Two small words that are bottomless….

Aditi October 6, 2023 at 2:30 pm

Beautifully written, as always! I started focusing on details and dialing up resolution when I picked up gardening as a hobby. (So brownie points on how you introduced the idea in this article!) I was hoping to see what motivated you to write this article. I’ve particularly noticed how zooming in on smaller details has made hiking such a well-rounded experience for me.

David Cain October 9, 2023 at 10:09 am

I’ve thought about this ever since I was a kid but didn’t really have a metaphor for expressing it. I was inspired to write the article when I began to see the parallel between details in physical experiences and details in opinions and beliefs.

Eugene October 6, 2023 at 5:50 pm

Beautiful essay, important insight. Very Buddhist, very Zen. A teacher of mine said that reality is never general, only always particular. Your essay is a virtual elaboration of that point.

quell October 10, 2023 at 4:45 am

Thanks for sharing the link! I’ll definitely check out the article you mentioned. It’s always interesting to explore how details can add layers of complexity and depth to our understanding of the world.

Vicki October 10, 2023 at 9:53 am

I enjoyed this so much. The accompanying photos and their captions, especially the leaf and the orange (with it’s vesicles, something I have always been fascinated with,) were perfectly chosen illustrations.

I am one with an artist mind, I paint and pot and build and bake, and I find myself often absorbed in more detail than those around me. You clarified the idea of zooming in and out and how it might be useful to do so and I appreciate your words.

Thank you for always meeting your audience with quality and thoughtfulness. Like the lady above, I would love to spend 3 hours on a bus or cross country flight next to you. I think it would be a great conversation.

Nicola October 10, 2023 at 6:07 pm

Some Canadiana for you: https://www.nfb.ca/film/cosmic_zoom/

David Cain October 16, 2023 at 10:49 am

Oh wow, I had never seen this one. I miss these NFB clips!

Osnat October 21, 2023 at 10:53 pm

Maybe less poetic, is I.S. Hayakawa’s Ladder of Abstraction, which one can use to zoom in and out just as intentionally.
(this reference, though very academic, goes further into the origins:

David October 25, 2023 at 10:22 am

I don’t know who Hayakawa is but I’ve seen that term (ladder of abstraction) mostly in the context of writing fiction. You can show the character’s background in great detail, describing it over many pages, or you can summarize it in a sentence. The challenge is finding the “rung” that will keep the reader interested and also impart enough detail to get the meaning across.

Abhishek November 16, 2023 at 3:14 am

I like to think of reality as not one truth but many layers of truth and they all exist simultaneously.

David Cain November 16, 2023 at 9:40 am

I agree with that. Which “layer” we’re looking at depends on what level of abstraction (or what resolution) we’re using to view what’s happening.

Tim November 16, 2023 at 11:40 am

“If you’re listening to crowd noise, for example, you can listen to it as a uniform, undifferentiated sound, or you can tune into to the individual voices that together make up the experience of “crowd noise.””

I envy those who can blend crowd noise, and apparently even tune it out of conscious thought. My brain can only ever hear a thousand people trying to talk to me at once.

Anthony November 21, 2023 at 7:17 pm

I think that being able to zoom in and zoom straight back out on topics is a bit like flexing intellectual muscle. It can be hard, especially without practice, but if you do it right, doing so can make both the detail you observed and its wider context all the more clear and meaningful.

Much like how focusing on a singular instrument can help you more readily perceive a song’s hidden melody, or how exploring some strange behavior in a non-performant function call can help you better understand how everything works in the software you were debugging.

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