Language Traps

According to both neuroscientists and illusionists, we see what we expect to see, and with the right stimulus, we can be deceived into seeing things that aren't there, and to missing things that are. Philosophers are quick to latch on to this. Also, fortunately, there is serious research into perceptual phenomena, though it is not always taken seriously.

Writers who are aware of this kind of thing can achieve extraordinary effects on their readers - some of the time. Attention and perception are tricky, and your subtly misleading paragraph that will be understood quite differently the second time it is read may fail completely if the reader is distracted halfway through. Poetry, of course, relies on this kind of thing, and the writer would be well advised to spend some time with the masters. Donne, Marvell, Coleridge and Pope all display some skill at this (the links are to my favourites, but not necessarily the best examples of what I'm talking about). The absolute master in English is Shakespeare, who in both poetry and plays constantly peppers the text with both vocabulary and imagery that foreshadows later events without signposting them. Just count how many times blood is mentioned in Macbeth before so much as a drop is spilled - and once the first drop is spilled, how many more...

Mel Comley pointed out that I had made an error when posting about her work a few days ago which I think reveals a very simple but compelling example of perceptual effects. The first two DI Lorne Simpkins novels are called Impeding Justice and Final Justice.

Impeding Justice (A Lorne Simpkins thriller) (A DI Lorne Simpkins thriller)Final Justice (A Lorne Simpkins thriller)

TRICKS OF THE MINDNow go back and read the title of the first one again. I, along with a whole lot of other people, read that as impending until the error was pointed out. I suspect that this is because the second book is called Final. Impending and Final are a natural sequence, so knowing that final is coming, I bet a lot of people will see impending even though impeding is written in big impact caps.

Tangentially - though not off topic - I cannot recommend enough Derren Brown's Tricks of the Mind. Not only does it reveal an awful lot about the author, it serves to teach a basic vocabulary of perception, and alert you to the way that you deceive yourself.

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