The following is based on a workshop given to RWA Chapter Leaders at this year’s national conference in New York.
Human perception functions like a ladder:
Observe stimuli—We are bombarded by millions of stimuli—sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touches—at any given moment.
But the human brain possesses the bandwidth to process only about five to nine pieces of data at any given moment. This forces us to filter out the extra stuff, keeping only the 5-9 bits we believe, based on our current interests and priorities, to be useful.
Then, based on past experience, we add meaning to the observations we decided were worth keeping.
Next, again based on past experience, we make assumptions about what we’ve perceived.
Then we draw conclusions.
Then we adjust our existing beliefs to take into account this new data we’ve experienced.
Finally, we take action based on the perception arrived at in the previous step.
Much of this processing takes place in the basal ganglia–an older part of the human brain that has evolved to process information swiftly, based on past experience. The basal ganglia is very efficient and requires minimal energy to do its job.
As we reach the top of the ladder, though, there’s an opportunity to re-inspect and rethink our conclusions using our pre-frontal cortexes, a more recently-developed part of the brain that’s designed to handle new and unique situations. The pre-frontal cortex requires a lot more energy to do its work, which is why solving complex problems (or developing plots!) is so exhausting.
As you can imagine, there’s a lot of room along this ladder for things to go awry, causing us to react in a less than optimum manner.
There’s a great video on YouTube on this Ladder of Inference.
I suspect that Add Meaning is where the conflict lies in most stories. It seems to provide a whole lot of opportunity for a character to completely misjudge what another character is doing, based on their own back story.
This happens a lot in my demon books. Demons have witnessed Bad Behavior from humans (and Satan) for so many millennia they tend to always assume the worst.