Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Your Brain is a Traitor: Neuroprocessing and Editing

I subscribe to Bloomberg Businessweek. My two year-old son, upon seeing this cover a few weeks ago, declared, "Oh no! The phone is sad."

Although I found that adorable, it's also rather fascinating from a neuroprocessing standpoint. Two crude dots and a crude mouth and my young son, without any explicit teaching on proper phone empathy, can look at the picture, parse it as a face, connect the facial expression to a specific feeling, and then put it all together to realize the phone was supposed to be sad.

My son is equipped with a complex parallel processing biological computer in the form of his brain. Although this particular computer is terrible at rapid, discrete calculation, it excels at something that even many very powerful super-computers have trouble with: pattern recognition. In an effort to improve computer pattern recognition, computer scientists long ago turned to neural networks, a type of programming, that attempts to operate in a roughly similar manner to our own brains.

Key to this pattern recognition ability is our brains' ability to rapidly fill in gaps based on incomplete information, particularly when we have any sort of cues to suggest a context. This makes life easy in all sorts of ways. We're able to recognize people from a variety of angles even if we can't see their entire face, for instance. Sometimes this can be fun too. Many optical illusions rely on our brain's ability to "fill in" gaps in received sensory information.

In writing, this can be a particular pernicious problem. When you write something, you know what you intended to write. You've set up expectations that are going to affect your parsing of sentences. A missing word here and there, a plot point that isn't resolved but that you think you resolved, et cetera. You very well may not notice them no matter how careful you are.

Now just keep that in mind the next time you hear some aspiring novelist insist that content editors and proofreaders aren't a necessity for every manuscript (and yes, I hear this all the time). Whatever one thinks of the modern publishing industry, it does provide some useful services on the author side in that regard. If you're a person who intends to walk a publishing path that doesn't involve some form of publisher, you better darn well find some other way of getting those other eyes (and other brains) on your work whether they are beta readers, critique partners, freelance editors, or magic genies. Whatever works. Just get the help.

Your traitorous brain will fail you, and your readers will notice.

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