I’m fighting an ongoing battle to read A Prayer Like Gravity’s poem, “Morning Haiku-ish” correctly:
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.”