The Paradox of Suspense XI – Features of the Attention as Engine of Suspense

Essential to our ability to feel suspense on repeated viewings then is our attention. The attention is best understood as the system by which we select (focus on) which information or stimulus we should process.[1] That is, the attention is the system that allocates where and to what end our processing resources should be allocated. Visual attention is the process by which we can focus on specific visual stimulation such individual words on a page (without which of course reading would be difficult if not impossible). Auditory attention is the process by which we can choose to focus on our friends’ voice or the whistling of the wind.[2] So, the attention allocates how much of our (limited) processor power gets allocated to tasks such as listening, seeing, feeling, recalling and encoding data. Because our attention (our processor power) is limited we prioritise tasks to focus on.[3] This limitation explains why we fail to carry on a meaningful conversation with a friend while simultaneously attempting to work out who is sleeping with who in our favourite soap.

This ability and propensity to focus on certain information or stimuli over other information or processes also extends to our ability to process enfolding stimuli over recalling stored experience. Encountering an ambulance on the road is a vivid instance of our ability and propensity to favour processing enfolding stimuli over stored experience. That is, when we are driving along a road and hear a blazing ambulance siren we do not focus (draw our attention) on explicitly remembering our last encounter with a similar or identical situation[4]. Rather, we focus (draw our attention) on where the ambulance is, where the noise is coming from, which direction the ambulance wants to go and what, if any, actions we should take to avoid holding the ambulance up. That is, in response to the ambulance’s siren we prioritise processing the immediate stimuli[5] (flashing lights, the noise) over recalling similar or identical past encounters stored in the long-term memory. So, when we encounter vivid and emotionally arousing stimuli we can, and often do, focus on processing unfolding events as a priority over integrating it with our memory[6]. In regard to narrative fiction, they offer many vivid and emotionally arousing scenes, situations and scenarios which we explicitly attempt to focus on understanding and processing with the consequence being that we may not recall past encounters with those scenes and ones similar to them[7]. Therefore, we may experience uncertainty in response to narratives we have certain knowledge of because we can prioritise processing immediate and unfolding stimuli over recalling similar scenes or situations stored in our long-term memory.


[1] John R Anderson, Cognitive Psychology and its Implications, 6th Edition, (London: Worth Publishers Ltd, 2004), p. 519.

[2] Elizabeth A Styles, Attention, Perception and Memory, (Hove: Psychology Press, 2005), p. 185

[3] Ibid, pp. 212-214.

[4] That is, we do not integrate it into memory by squaring our current experience with those we have encountered in the past. This is not to say that past experiences cannot shape our intuitions and instincts, they are however, implicit processes not controlled or under the remit of the explicit processes of the attention.

[5] An article that illustrates our propensity to focus on processing vivid and emotionally arousing stimuli see L M  Hulse & A Memon ‘Fatal impact? The effects of emotional arousal and weapon presence on police officers’ memories for a simulated crime’, Legal and Criminological Psychology, 11, (2006), pp. 313–325.

[6] For the many ways this propensity affects the encoding state of memory see A Burke, F Heuer & D Reisberg, ‘Remembering emotional events’, Memory & Cognition, 20, (1992) pp. 277–290.

[7] Without this ability many films and novels would be unbearable. If we did automatically recall similar or identical encounters with fiction every time we encountered a new action film we would spend half the film thinking about old films and the similarities between them all. Of course this is not to say that we cannot recall similarities between what we are seeing now and past experiences similar to them. However, if we were all obliged to do this and did so often then it seems unlikely that more than one Steven Seagal film would ever be made.