stochastic resonance in reading

Stochastic resonance (SR) is a phenomenon where a signal that is normally too weak to be detected by a sensor, can be boosted by adding white noise to the signal, which contains a wide spectrum of frequencies. The frequencies in the white noise corresponding to the original signal’s frequencies will resonate with each other, amplifying the original signal while not amplifying the rest of the white noise (thereby increasing the signal-to-noise ratio which makes the original signal more prominent). Further, the added white noise can be enough to be detectable by the sensor, which can then filter it out to effectively detect the original, previously undetectable signal.

This works for sound and image alike, for example:

sr

SR may help to explain why some people learn better when surrounded by white noise — thus writers who hang out in coffee shops. SR has been identified in the sensory neurobiology of many creatures, but I don’t understand that stuff at all, so please don’t have any illusions about my competence to grasp serious scientific ideas.

I mention all this because I think reading texts from the past — something about which I have written a book — is a way of usefully introducing stochastic resonance into our mental lives. Maybe I’m stretching a metaphor here, but bear with me.

Some people say we live in an age of information overload. Clay Shirky has said that it’s not information overload but rather “filter failure.” A slightly different way to put Shirky’s point is to say that a super-surplus of input makes it difficult for us to discern genuine information, to distinguish signal from noise. We can’t sift and sort and bring order to all the stuff assaulting us.

But if you step back from the endless flow of social media and the internet more generally, and sit down with a book from the past that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the affairs of the moment, something curious and rather wonderful can happen. Unexpectedly and randomly — stochastically — you begin to perceive resonances with your own moment, with the concerns that you may have turned to the past in order to escape.

When you approach the text from the past on its own terms and for its own sake, it becomes a kind of white noise in relation to present concerns. Your attention to the long ago and far away makes the tumult and the shouting die, the captains and the kings depart. (Allusion alert!) It’s when the current environment lies outside the scope of your attention, when you neither seek nor expect any connection to it, that you make room for random resonances to form.

And when they do form, you begin to discern the really key features of your moment more clearly. An image begins to appear where there had been formlessness. Useless and pernicious statements start to recede into the background as you perceive them for what they are. The salient and the helpful points move to the forefront of your attention.

You can’t force this to happen — indeed, any attempt to force it will result in the simple confirmation of what you already think. It’s only when the resonances feel truly random — when they arise at moments when you’re not looking for or expecting them — that they have the power of clarification. You can predict that resonances will occur; but you can’t predict when they’ll show up or what they’ll be.

This may be a subset of the Eureka phenomenon, but at the moment I’m inclined to think that it’s largely distinct from that, though not unrelated.

By the way, I think all that I’ve described here describes equally well the experience of reading much science fiction and fantasy. The fact that almost all of my leisure reading is (a) old books, (b) SF, (c) fantasy suggests that my fundamental orientation as a reader is a hopeful openness to stochastic resonance.