The Seven Levels of Attention - and What Writers Need to Know About Them - Part 12

What happens to us when we are reading a good story?

Would it be true to say that we enter a half-conscious state characterised by an absence of response to external stimuli?

If a story is gripping enough, it seems to literally absorb our attention. People can speak to us, screens or music can be on in the background, things can be whizzing by (if we are in a car or on a bus or train) and we don’t pay them any attention.

That’s one definition of the word ‘trance’. The word itself comes from the Old French transir ‘depart, fall into trance’, from Latin transire ‘go across’.

Reading is an odd thing, when you think about it. It’s an abnormal state of wakefulness in which a person is not self-aware and is at least partially unresponsive to external stimuli (an official definition of 'trance') but is nevertheless capable of following along what is being read, generating the required mental imagery, and experiencing emotional responses. While we might normally associate going into a trance with such things as hypnosis, meditation, magic, or prayer, it seems clear that something of the same kind happens to us when we are drawn into a really good tale.

Human beings are always filtering the information coming in through their senses. In a trance, it might be possible to argue that a person is altering the way this sensory flow of information is perceived to a more noticeable extent, in effect ‘turning down the volume’ on the outer world and paying closer attention to an inner one. In reading, it could also be argued that, instead of reducing attention - something which it is said trances normally do - the attention is being redirected.

And so we reach that state desired by all authors: Focused Attention. It is the condition in which readers are so absorbed by a book that they pay it more heed than anything else.