It happened again the other night. I watched a television show that concluded with a surprising twist. Later that night and the next morning, the show kept popping into my thoughts, as I pondered different ways the plot might resolve.
Ah, the magic of the cliffhanger. Televisions writers know that a fresh, unresolved plot point keeps viewers thinking about the series between episodes. They understand the brain’s tendency to put capacity aside to work on unresolved issues: the Zeigarnick effect.
Bluma Zeigarnick was Lithuanian psychiatrist. She came up with the insight that bears her name in the 1920s, after witnessing a waiter who could fulfill complex orders without writing them down. He remembered ever detail about a table and its diners until the orders were filled. But moments after they left, he no longer recognized the people he had served. The information remained in working memory just long enough to fill the orders.
For this waiter, the Zeigarnick effect was a job aid, no doubt resulting in bigger tips. But it can also annoy us, as when an unfinished fragment of a song buzzes through our heads. We’ve all suffered from these earworms. (“Everything is Awesome” … did I infect you?)
For writers, this mental tendency can be both friend and foe.
The Distraction of Unfinished Work
Unresolved issues often distract us from focusing on the necessary work of writing.
In the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney argue that the unseen mental drain of unfinished tasks damages our focus.
The book describes a study by Baumeister and E. J. Masicampo, in which researchers asked one group of students to contemplate and write about a recently accomplished task. Another group was asked to write about an unfinished task or goal that was due soon. Then each group each read several pages of a novel. (Read about the study in this Psychology Today article.)
Those students who had contemplated an unfinished goal found their minds wandering more often, and performed poorly on a subsequent comprehension test. Part of the brain wasn’t letting go of the unresolved issue, affecting the ability to focus.
The study demonstrated a solution; a third group was asked to formulate a plan to complete an unmet goal. Mentally resolving the issue was enough to repeal the mental tax of the Zeigarnick effect. Having made a plan, the brain is perfectly happy to consider the task done.
Struggling with a problem can affect your focus when writing.
Using the Zeigarnick Effect as a Writing Aid
When we understand how our brains work, we can use the Zeigarnick effect to our advantage. Think of it as providing automatic, effortless mental processing power for sticky problems.
Don’t know how to begin a chapter, or what metaphor to use? Make a specific mental note of the writing issue before you stop writing. Remind yourself of unresolved problems, then go about your day doing things other than writing.
Your brain will allocate some background processing to the problem. This works best when you’re doing something that doesn’t require focused attention, as more brain cycles are available for working on the problem below the surface.
I only learned the name for this mental tendency recently, but it’s been an essential part of my writing practice for years. Before stopping writing, I’ll identify one or two issues that I want to resolve. As I do laundry or drive somewhere, I’ll gently remind myself or let my mind wander back to those problems. Often, new ideas present themselves, the fruit of unconscious thought.
Your brain is going to be working on unresolved issues anyway – why not direct its efforts?