Paying attention to details

Post written by Orsolya Hernold

I just came across an article about a certain teaching method used by a Harvard professor, Louis Agassiz: the importance of first-hand, careful observation in natural sciences. The article was written by one of his student who was presented with a fish (a dead specimen preserved in alcohol) upon their first meeting, and was told to look at it. Just looking, observing, with no other instruction. Looking for hours. After the first day passed, the professor commented the recount of the observation with “you have not looked very carefully”. So the student was to look at the fish with no artificial aids for two more days. Samuel H. Scudder in his article of ‘The Student, the Fish and Agassiz’ said this lesson to be of inestimable value.

The article reminded me of a training exercise about paying attention to details. We were to form pairs and were given time to carefully observe each other. Then we turned our backs’ on each other and changed 5 things in our appearances. We turned back, and we were to find those differences. Then came the second round with 10 changes (we were not allowed to do something twice). There were pairs who gave up, said that it is impossible to find 15 things to change on ourselves without using any new items (clothes, make-up, things to put in our hair, etc.). My pair and I were enthusiastic and wanted to comply with the trainer, so we managed to find 10 new changes. However, there was the last round of 50 changes…

In spite of the fact that we were unable to fulfill this last request, the exercise accomplished to get its message across: if we pay closer attention, a throng of details hits the eye. The other end of the scale is being superficial or having a filter on: regarding only the important, the dangerous or the sensational.


Children can be great teachers here: they have no (or totally different) filters of the world as we do and can notice the tiniest change (the tone of my voice, a 3-word description in a story that I failed to hear, the teeny blue flower in our garden in the spring). The details they have brought to my attention have enriched my life.


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