Brain Tricks – Neuroscience, Poetry and Sheep

23 Apr

I’m fighting an ongoing battle to read A Prayer Like Gravity’s poem, Morning Haiku-ishcorrectly:

light dances on fields

of belligerent sleep, chasing

crows and hard scarecrows

No matter how many times I read the poem, I see the word “sheep” instead of “sleep,” especially if I’m reading it quickly. At least two others made similar comments about the poem on Gravity’s blog.

So why are we misreading it?

I think I have an explanation. Recently, Livia Blackburne (a neuroscience grad student at  MIT whose first YA novel, Midnight Thief, will be published in 2014 by Disney-Hyperion), wrote an essay about the brain and word selection for a Website for business writers: Emphasis Business Writing Trainers. But the topic applies to everyone.  

Livia explained how the brain creates and uses mental models (or schemas) to “see” things that aren’t really there, because it recognizes patterns, builds on previous knowledge, and makes generalizations that help us respond quickly to situations we’ve encountered repeatedly. It’s when our brain becomes too efficient that it makes mistakes.

When I read this haiku and detected my error, I immediately thought of Livia’s essay. So let’s do a little analysis:

  • The word “fields” takes us to the farm, the pasture. We have a schema for “fields” that includes animals, often sheep.

  • Then the adjective “belligerent” immediately precedes the word “sleep.” Our schema tells us that only living things (like sheep) are  belligerent, not something like “sleep.” As a farmer’s daughter, I can attest to how belligerent some sheep, especially the bucks, can be. One once butted my father over a water tank, nearly breaking his leg. 

  • So we have been prepared to read the word “sheep” instead of “sleep” by the time we reach the trailing comma and the word “chasing.” We have a schema for animals such as sheep. They have feet, and they can chase. “Sleep” has no feet, so it cannot. And by the time I reach the word “chasing,” I am not thinking about the light, but the movement of animals in the field.

  • Then we have the other animals in the field, the crows, and the inanimate scarecrows. We are certain we read the word “sheep,” right?

  • And if that’s not enough to lead us astray (sorry, couldn’t resist), we also have the age old underlying schema of counting “sheep” to go to “sleep.”

It is a brilliant “trick,” and I love how hard it is for me to see the correct word.

Poets shake us out of our ragged, well-worn schemas and slip us into new chemises, for a moment or forever.

Fiction writers make artful use of metaphor to shake us up as well. Similarly, characters that “go against type” challenge us to question racial, class, or cultural schemas.

Great joke writers make use of schemas to lead us down a path and then lie in ambush with the punch line.

And I must bow at the feet of translators. Think of the effort, art, and insight it takes to bridge not only literal language differences but also language and cultural schemas when translating prose and poetry. The task is formidable.

So take a look at Livia’s short essay and read about people who swear they’ve seen something they haven’t, and remind yourself just how much “baggage” comes with the words we write.

Every piece of learned knowledge and experience is processed by the brain at astounding speed, efficiently (if not always correctly) coloring all of our future experiences–and reading.

Look out for sleep along the way.

20 Responses to “Brain Tricks – Neuroscience, Poetry and Sheep”

  1. Margarita April 23, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    I keep saying to my sweet husband, who’s the survivor of multiple strokes, that the brain is the processor of information and knowledge, not its generator (my personal view, and nothing to do with Science). As a city girl, I didn’t encounter the same baggage on this go ’round and I enjoyed tagging along on this exploration. Thanks! xoM

    • Jilanne Hoffmann April 23, 2013 at 10:17 am #

      Ah, you are so correct in your personal view. I hope your husband is on the mend and getting the physical exercise that is so much a part of keeping those neurons alive and kicking.

      Yes, city girls most likely carry other types of bags–not feed buckets. But now that I’m a city girl, having lived in San Francisco for 17+ years and Washington DC for 6+ and traveled to many others around the globe, I find it amazing how quickly my brain goes back to my “roots.” 😮

      • Margarita April 23, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

        Thanks, Jilanne. Although his recovery is not as complete as he’d like it to be, he continues to improve all the time. It’s amazing how we go back to our roots seamlessly. I meant to say, my roots are in the city, having been city-born and bred. Just not NYC. That role belongs to my daughter! 😉 xoxoM

  2. johnnycrabcakes April 23, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

    Thank you Jilanne! You have no idea how thrilled I am to see one of my pieces used to illustrate such an intriguing topic. Much of my current reading about poetry and poetics revolves around just these sorts of “tricks” that language plays on us. It is fascinating to me that as poets, we try to utilize these inherent idiosyncracies of language and the way the mind uses them, but so often, it happens on accident.

    I awoke that day with (for whatever reason) the words “hard scarecrow” rolling off my lips and later read Susan’s haiku about waking up, and was inspired to combine the two ideas. Plus I’m doing the NaPoWriMo thing and was feeling weak…

    So, I guess I should say, “Ummm…yeah…I ummm meant to do that. Yah…”
    Call it a happy accident.

    Thank you so much for this. I learn so much about my work and especially my process through the vision of others.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann April 24, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

      You are so welcome! I think you use the “tricks of the poet’s trade” quite well here.

      Happy accidents often become “I meant to do thats,” because there’s so much going on subconsciously while we’re spinning those conscious (and self conscious) writing wheels. Sometimes if we let a little of the subconscious leak through, we surprise ourselves. That’s when I feel we’re most successful.

      I enjoy your poetry and look forward to reading more!

  3. Call of the Siren April 24, 2013 at 3:03 pm #

    A really great piece, Jilanne, about a subject that could easily slide into too much technical, specialized stuff and lose the reader. This piece is full of surprises: not what we usually exempt….

    “Poets shake us out of our ragged, well-worn schemas and slip us into new chemises…” — couldn’t agree more, as I’m discovering with a poet named Odom currently.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann April 24, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

      Thanks, Nick! I tried to keep it palatable. 😮

      “not what we usually exempt”? Were you trying to slide one by me? Or did one slide by you?

      It’s good to hear you’re enjoying Michael’s work! I’m one of his fans, too.

  4. postmoderndonkey April 24, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

    Wonderful analysis. I will go out on a limb here and say, all tricks aside, it would be a better poem in my world of poetry with the word “sheep” given all you point out. Then the sleep aspect would be implied and the beauty of the imagery would remain fractured but intact. “Better poem” is such a listless comment but it will have to serve here. Thanks for the insights.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann April 24, 2013 at 5:54 pm #

      Thank you! You make an interesting point. Perhaps the poet can, ah, “ruminate” on that?

      • Ray Sharp April 25, 2013 at 6:48 am #

        I prefer it with sleep, rather than sheep. there is a tension.

        • Jilanne Hoffmann April 25, 2013 at 9:37 am #

          Yes, I’ve been thinking about this, too. I prefer it with “sleep” as well. I would miss the fight that goes on in my head each time I read it.

  5. David Stewart May 8, 2013 at 2:08 am #

    That’s really interesting. The brain is an amazing thing.
    By the way, you just won my Story Premise Challenge. Come choose your prize 🙂

  6. Jilanne Hoffmann May 14, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

    Just wanted to add an interesting article on “misreading” written by Tim Parks in the New YorK Review of Books. here’s the link:

  7. Marcy Erb November 18, 2015 at 10:14 pm #

    I read “sheep” too! It was only when you pointed it out that I did a mental “WHAAAT?” and backed up to find the wrong word sitting there! 😀 And I grew up in the city – but I did recently spend two weeks walking in the Welsh countryside with more sheep than I’d ever seen in my life, so…
    It is amazing what our brains will fill in for us – a real time-saver, in general – but can definitely be exploited. The neuroscience behind this is so so fascinating.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann November 23, 2015 at 2:04 pm #

      Yes, it is, Marcy! Sorry I’m behind on checking my blog. We moved this past Thursday, and we’re still moving plants/fragile items/etc., selling things, cleaning the old place….Am looking forward to getting back into my routine. Perhaps early December. Thanks for checking this poem out. I love how I can still read it, and each time I read “sheep.” 😀 Cheers!


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