Cognitive Tunneling and the Writing Process

Cognitive Tunneling and the Writing Process

As I write this post, it’s a rainy early morning. I’m drinking a cup of coffee and just finished off a ginger and date scone from a batch I made the other day. By all accounts, not a bad way to start the day. But I’m dreading finishing this post — there’s no milk in the fridge, and there’s only one egg left in the carton. That means, for all intents and purposes, there’s nothing for my husband and I to eat for breakfast except some dry granola cereal and an egg.

And I will have to tell him, not for the first time, that I forgot to stock up on these things while I was at the grocery store yesterday. He will forgive me, but I will feel bad — he’s been home sick with a cold, and it’s no fun having to scrounge for food first thing in the morning.

It’s not that I’m forgetful. But sometimes, when I go to the grocery store, I’m only thinking about the things I want at that precise moment, the ingredients I need to make dinner or eat as a snack. As though no other future meals on the planet exist except the one I’m about to make. And even when I write a list beforehand, I’m more likely to miss items that have run out if it’s not something I would normally want to eat at that precise juncture in time.

It’s a classic case of cognitive tunneling. We focus on one thing at the risk of overlooking others.

In my e-book Be Your Own Editor, I talk about cognitive tunneling in the context of self-editing. When checking our own work, it’s difficult to spot mistakes because our minds are accustomed to focusing so much on the writing:

Like a magician’s sleight of hand, cognitive tunneling directs our attention away from the big picture. While editing our own writing, our mind zooms in on conceptual aspects — the words, ideas and arguments we worked so hard to render into coherent text — and we become blind to basic errors and weaknesses in the writing. As a result, we have to work twice as hard to even see the mistakes in our own writing as we would in anyone else’s, let alone begin to correct them.

But cognitive tunneling can affect us while writing, too. We can, for example, become over-focused on certain aspects of crafting our prose and lose sight of the bigger picture. We become myopic.

In my own writing habits, this amounts to getting sucked into minute elements of what I’m writing — I over-focus on one point of my argument at the expense of others, or I get so caught up on the wording in one sentence that I’ll spend an entire day working on it. Or I’ll focus on word counts and manage to get an entire section on paper that has no argument.

There’s a time and place to zoom in on specific problems while writing. If our editor tells us we need to cut the word count to publish the article, well, then we do need to focus on cutting.

Aside from such times, though, for me, the best writing happens when I adopt a sort of diffuse attention in my work. When I can notice that one sentence may be a bit clunky, but I don’t drop everything else I’m writing to spend hours fixing it. Deep breathing helps with this, as does taking frequent, short breaks from writing, to stretch, walk around the apartment or stare out the window for a few minutes. In the end, the rough edges get polished and it usually happens gradually. In fact, a lot of problems get solved while we’re not intentionally thinking about them.

Keeping this in mind has worked well in my writing, but I still haven’t found a way to apply the idea to my grocery habits. If you have any ideas on that front, let me know. Meanwhile, it looks like I’ll be making an early morning grocery run before work.

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