Brain Triggers: Use Visuals

1543,AndreasVesalius'Fabrica,BaseOfTheBrainI am not a clear surface person. I have images all over my house, pictures my kids drew cover the fridge, and photos of family and friends dot the walls. I enjoy being surrounded by these pictures, all happy reminders of good times. However, when I need to work, or I’m feeling a touch of writer’s block, these items don’t help me, they’re a distraction. What does help me is using brain triggers. If you don’t know what brain triggers are, you might want to check out one of my earlier posts. I already mentioned how you can use the power of Sounds and Smells  as a trigger. Brain triggers are a collection of tricks for helping your mind recall long forgotten memories and emotions. In this post I’ll show you how to use visual cues to tap into these emotions. Triggers can help everyone strengthen their writing. Use one tip, or use all of them and watch your writing improve.

Start with old photo boxes:

When you want to find brain triggers, you need to look for images that hold sentimental value. The best ones are the ones you haven’t looked at in a while. Select some photos of events, people, pets, anything where your emotions for that photo closely match those feelings you want to capture in your writing. This can be a negative or positive emotion. If you want to write about intense joy, find a photo from the happiest day of your life. Want to give some credibility to a teenage character? Drag out the worst school picture ever taken of you, or your yearbook where someone wrote a nasty comment. Study just one of these old photos before writing. Take as long as you need with the photo, let it flood you with those old emotions and memories. Become that kid going to school every day wondering when the school bully would strike again. Now put the trigger photo out of sight and work. Dive into those old emotions, let them take hold of you. Don’t fight your old memories, don’t rationalize them or second guess what you would do differently, just embrace them. Cry tears of joy, or yell at the boy who broke your heart with all the simmering rage of youth.

Look at familiar images in a new way:

Most writers stock pile photos to use as references. When we first found these photos they inspired us, but now months later, not so much. You need to learn to see the photos with fresh eyes to reignite that old spark of excitement. Print out color copies of your important reference photos, the celebrities, locations or outfits you’re using for your book. Working with one image at a time, try turning the image upside down and studying it. What do you notice? Something new? Take black construction paper and cut out a small hole in the center of it. Position this over your image. Block out all the other details and study that one spot. Maybe just look at the eyes of your photo. What do you see? Separated from the rest of the face, the eyes can convey something opposite of the familiar smile. Our brains are naturally hardwired to take in the big picture. It’s why you may not know your best friend’s eye color. Doing this refocusing exercise not only helps you craft detail rich prose, but it pushes your brain into a deeper functioning level as it decodes the images and its brain candy. Many people love word scrambles or find-the-hidden-images games, they dust off complacent thinking and stimulate creativity. Make your own puzzles by cutting up your reference images. How well do you recognize the mansion you set your story in when it’s reduced to a one inch square? Or if you cut two similar buildings apart, could you rematch all the pieces, or would you end up with a hybrid of the two buildings mixed together? You might be surprised.

Change your environment:

Some people love to work outside. With the sun on my face it’s much easier for me to think about my Egyptian characters. They would be fighting glare, flies, and oppressive heat, something easy to forget inside a thermostat controlled house. Being outside helps me think about how different things look in full sunlight. I start to write about shade and shadow. If you can’t physically get into the right climate, you might try to surround your desk with huge posters of sun drenched beaches or frozen fjords. Work in a airport, a train station, or a museum. Study the staff. What do they where? Do they look happy to be there? Soak up the texture of the rug, the paper on the walls and the look of the light fixtures. Maps can also help, they give us visual reminders of the distances between places. Create interior blueprints of your locations, with detailed furnishings, and post these near your desk. All these visual references help you relate spatially to your setting. They can help you rediscover the landscapes in a fresh way. Setting a book in a place you don’t call home is always challenging, so learning how to trigger some old memories and emotions is important, and really helps gives you an edge when you want to give each setting a realistic feel.   

Remember to swap your images around. Once your mind adapts to seeing the pictures they will stop producing a strong trigger. Happy writing!

Author: Robin Rivera

Robin trained as a professional historian and worked as a museum curator, educator, and historical consultant. She writes mystery fiction, with diverse characters and a touch of snark. She's currently working on two new manuscripts that started off as NaNoWriMo projects. You can follow her on Facebook( However, Pinterest ( is where her inner magpie is happiest of all.

3 thoughts on “Brain Triggers: Use Visuals”

  1. I love this. I find myself using this technique but thought it was my characters’ ideas. 😉 I get distracted easily but these things always at least get my started on a scene. (Then I go into hiding.)

      1. Thanks, Sarah. I’m glad these ideas might help you. I use brain triggers all the time. They help me get jump started to write. But I still have to sit down, focus and bang out words. You can do this too! Just turn off the rest of the world and crawl into your own imagination.

We love comments and questions.

%d bloggers like this: