Filtering out the no(i)se


Did you know that you can always see your nose?

Made you look! Or rather, made you notice.

Your nose is always smack-dab in the middle of your field of vision, but your brain chooses to ignore it most of the time. (You can learn about the phenomenon here.) That’s because it’s expected sensory information. Your brain doesn’t need to register your nose (unless something’s going on with it, like maybe there’s a butterfly perched on it) so your brain filters it out in order to be more efficient. After all, your brain can’t be expected to actively report on absolutely everything it comes across all the time. And you don’t want it to. You want your brain to clue you in to the important stuff, like the sign-post you’re about to walk into, the twenty-dollar bill lying on the sidewalk, or the fact that your duck a l’orange is burning to a crisp.

This ability–called unconscious selective attention–means your brain can safely ignore unnecessary inputs so it can handle the important stuff.

(Interested in this concept? Read more here. The invisible gorilla experiment is also pretty cool.)

Unconscious selective attention can help you focus on your writing efforts. Most writers need quiet, calm spaces in which to work, and those spaces are increasingly hard to come by. But this is when your brain gives you a helping hand. You’ll be able to edit out unimportant background noises that might be preventing you from concentrating, like the chatter in your local coffee-shop or the lawnmower outside your window. It also means you aren’t distracted by the colour of the rug, or the hum of the HVAC system, or the fact that you’re wearing slippers.

But you might want to think differently about selective attention in your writing, particularly if you’re writing fiction. This is one place where you want to consciously select the information your reader should notice. It’s your job to point out that background information when it will enhance your writing.

When does this make sense?

  • When you want to make a description of your setting richer. What kinds of sounds percolate through the scene? Is there a unique quality to the light, or a scent to the air? Bring some of that sensory flavour to the foreground.
  • When you want to build suspense. A ticking clock. The lack of birdsong. A hum in the air. The sun slowly going down. Adding these barely noticeable layers to your scene will give your readers a sense that something is about to happen.
  • When you want to slow the pace down. Is your character taking a moment to reflect on a decision or remember the past? Take note of the small gestures and non-critical elements to give the scene a meditative quality.

Take a moment to notice the things that your brain is helping you ignore for efficiency’s sake.


Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash.

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