What prompts a writer suddenly write down an idea? Authors of any genre – there’s a lot going on when you write.When you think you have an out-of-the-blue idea and must just get it down, more likely the germ of the idea, even if it’s caused by something just noticed, has an appeal that lies in some unconscious association. That is, past experience will affect the particular event observed, aurally or visually. Why notice this (length of someone’s thumb), rather than that (choice of tie)? Did you know that subliminal exposure can influence preferences? Even patients with amnesia can demonstrate affective preferences without remembering any encounters with the objects of their affection (Johnson & Multhaup, 1992). But the experience of preferring one stimulus rather than another is conscious. As a writer, you are aware of ‘the good idea’ or the urge to write down something noticed or experienced, (conscious preference) without recognising that some original strong, possibly emotional, experience sparked your attention to or your ‘preference’ for a particular stimulus. What one person sees and immediately focuses upon may be ignored by another. Every scene, even the familiar surrounds of the working or home environment, holds a kaleidoscope of auditory and visual stimuli. At a party, Jane’s attention may be drawn to a particular blue-grey dress. She says, when asked afterwards, ‘I don’t know why I remember that dress. I didn’t even particularly like it.’ But in fact it’s the same colour and texture as a dress worn by a shouting aunt in a long-ago quarrel. Her focus of attention means that she fails to absorb the content of conversation in the nearby group. Derek, beside her, has his eyes on one speaker whose gestures irritate him. He can’t say why. If he’s a writer, he may think about why, worry away at the conundrum. Sometimes it is possible to dredge up the original stimulus. A writer may go back over and again over his/her thoughts about an experience such as those above. Occasionally, the origin emerges and it is usually a very satisfying feeling even when the original stimulus was upsetting. It’s a feeling of getting things into place. Why is this unconscious layer of memory part of the human experience? It has a social, a survival function. To know the minds of others, (are they dangerous, are they to be trusted?) from our very early days we must attend to and perceive the available cues, whether in their verbal or nonverbal behavior. In unconsciously absorbing tiny details that contain information about a person’s inner qualities, there is a kind of template against which new experiences can be tested over time. Moreover, when a writer includes such detail it is recognised as significant by the reader. The reader may not know why s/he has focussed on that detail in the chapter, but s/he also has this layer of awareness built up from infancy that alerts him or her to such clues. A character may be softly rubbing the edge of a desk as some significant news is given him. The reader enjoys noticing this detail and absorbing it as a guide to that character’s reaction, and ultimately, personality. It is this kind of detail that moves a piece of writing to another level, (and is often missing from plot-driven fiction). Whether it is the writer writing it, or the reader reading it, such detail makes for what we often call a ‘rich’ read. I have written about auditory and visual stimuli here. Olfactory stimuli is another matter. It is commonly known how certain smells activate long-forgotten memories in the most vivid way. I will write about this in another post. This is the first of several pieces relating to the cognitive process in writing.