by Jack Henry
We see things, process them, but not notice.
I'm part way through a university course on Forensic Psychology. For those who don't know and too afraid to ask, forensic psychology is the study of how we observe and recall detail, in particular, witnessing a crime.
To give you an idea of how we see, a video showed a group of people in an office all wearing white. One holds two green clipboards, another holds two red ones. We were asked to count the number of times the red folder held in a person's left hand was passed about. The group circulates in random patterns each passing the folders from one to the next.
The video was based on a study conducted by Simons and Chabris in 1999 called 'a gorilla in the midst'. I was pleased with my powers of observation counting the correct number of times the red folder changed hands.
The instructor then asked if we noticed the giant mouse? I thought, bulls**t! How could I miss something like that? On replaying the video and this time ignoring the clipboards, sure enough, a person in a mouse costume walked into the middle of the folder passing scuffle, stopped, waved to the camera, then continued off-screen.
What kind of shamanism was this?
It turns out I'm not alone. Well over half of the people given the same test failed to see the giant mouse. Psychologists call it unintentional blindness—failing to catch the bleeding obvious. It turns out, we observe what is happening and our brains process it, but we do not attend to it and so not conscious it is there.
It started me thinking if similar processes are at work when we write?
Take, for instance, the old bugbear corrected by editors, wordiness: adverbs stuck to the ends of verbs like a hideous rat's tail, or should I say, giant mouse tail. Adverbs limit or extend the significance of a verb and qualifying adjectives and other verbs. Stephen King does not like them. He says, “The adverb is not your friend.” King concedes adverbs have a place in dialogue attribution but only on special occasions. He likens adverbs to dandelions—one on your lawn is pretty. Ignore it and soon your yard is covered and you will see dandelions for what they are, weeds.
Stephen King is not alone in decrying wordiness. Raymond Carver wrote about lessons from his teacher John Gardner, “... wanting me to understand what he was trying to show me, telling me over and over how important it was to have the right words saying what I wanted them to say. Nothing vague or blurred, no smoky-glass prose.”
So why do we overuse adjectives and adverbs? Possibly, or invariably, and other 'ly' words it is haste, the fear we have in converting our abstract imagination into concrete words. Getting our stories down before they fade into distractions of the every day, grabbing dull verbs in place of strong ones. Then again, it could be like the giant mouse walking through the screen—our attention is elsewhere in the complexity of storytelling and we don't see them.