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Remembering Life Stories (part 1 of 5)

Character Development as a mnemonic advantage in remembering biographical storylines

By focusing on a single Character, literary biographies facilitate a mnemonic efficiency that’s theoretically unlimited; a lifetime worth of content can potentially be associated with a single memory cue. The most common word continually names the ubiquitous subject, providing the repetition and redundancy that advantages working memory, and the high frequency of this combination “primes” a long term memory of this Character - most often as a general sense of characteristics, personality, and disposition. But while this type of construction certainly provides a reader’s memory with coherence, it’s famously different than the type of coherence provided to readers by a classical plot. When the anecdotes and episodes of a comprehensive life story seem like “just one thing after another” rather than presenting a unified event sequence, memory built around Character is bound to be lacking in story-structure. What readers remember of biographies can be largely if not completely timeless, making life stories seem to be, on reflection, not much at all like what we normally refer to as “stories”.(*)

How can readers remember lengthy and elaborate storylines with a coherent sequence?

As it turns out, the redundant ubiquity of a central Character can also advantage the efficient remembering of progression through time whenever narratives provide the types of content which help a reader to focus on Character Development.

We’ve already looked at how human mortality offers a baseline for establishing temporal sequence in life story narratives, the implicit macro-structure of a “cradle to grave” storyline, but there’s no absolute standard for how a given reader might reconstruct and remember a detailed micro-structure of an entire biographical timeline. Subjectively, we trust many readers will distinguish between broad “stages of life” such as infancy, childhood, adulthood, and old age, but unconscious distinctions like these break down quickly when story content straddles the boundaries. For instance, when does “adolescence” end? Before you answer, consider that sometimes teenagers can be more psychologically mature than most thirty-somethings. For this reason, among many others, we cannot define any standard pattern for periodizing our mental fabulas of a life story. Neither the categories of Richard Burridge nor the developmental stages of Jean Piaget will help us move beyond complete subjectivity.

We need both more diversity and more specificity in our differentiation of micro-structure. We must even try to account for those few readers whose minds struggle profoundly to retain any structure at all. For starters, however, we might justifiably focus on capable readers who are interested in remembering a life story’s sequence. Those are two key parameters. Capability matters because readers’ mental capacities vary wildly. Interest matters because long, detailed timelines aren’t typically memorable. Even among the mnemonically gifted, most readers aren’t captivated by chronology for its own sake, but only think about a “timeline” when they try to reconstruct “the story”, at which point temporal structure suddenly gains critical importance. In this inquiry, therefore, we will not attempt to determine what makes a lengthy and elaborate storyline “memorable”. Rather, our humble question must be to ask merely, What makes a lengthy and elaborate storyline more efficiently rememberable?

How is it that we do sometimes manage to remember a biographical storyline succinctly?

Again I say, despite differences in reader capacity, narratives that focus on character development offer built-in mnemonic advantages, of potential benefit to any possible reader.

Enough disclaimers. I will now attempt to explain how this actually works, however often it does.

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Though uninterested in timelines, most readers have spent their whole lives obsessed with other people and how they live. Thomas Carlyle said, “Man is perennially interesting to man; nay, if we look strictly to it, there is nothing else interesting" and he famously observed that each human existence is “unlike every other, and yet at the same time so like every other”. In the course of living, we accumulate a database of biographical storylines about “great heroes” as well as ordinary folks like ourselves. From conversations & gossip, from legends & myths, from stories & histories, from eulogies & obituaries, from a lifetime of fascination with others, we begin to recognize general patterns of natural growth and personal development. The life stories we do notice inevitably share common micro-trajectories, frequent pairings of successive human experiences, especially sequences made predictable due to natural probability or cultured regularities. The process of accumulating these statistical norms is lifelong and complicated, but with enough data it becomes easy to recognize: General patterns assist us in remembering the life stories of others.

For narratologists, this process nearly resembles something called “cognitive schemata” - mental frameworks used to comprehend and remember narrative content - except for three critical differences. An individual “script” or “schema” will typically model only a single stereotypical activity, aggregated from repetitively similar personal experiences, which details a fairly short time frame. In total contrast, any mental framework for life stories would have to involve a collection of stereotypical activities, aggregating vicarious experiences (usually imagined, based on second or third hand information), while detailing lengthy time frames that are literally hundreds of thousands of times greater than a typical “cognitive script”. For instance, the standard textbook example of a schema is the familiar routine of dining at a restaurant (~1 hr) but a biographical storyline is going to cover (on average) perhaps seventy years. Even if our minds constructed lifetime-sized schema from vicarious information, we could never use one biographical stereotype as the basis for understanding all other literary narratives. (For more on schemas, see my post, Towards... Part 1.)

Our general knowledge of patterns in human development is broad, but the particular structures of life stories differentiate themselves, limitlessly. Therefore, to understand the process that helps people remember biographical storylines, we need a new kind of framework, or perhaps more than one. To put that more accurately, we need to identify a set of complimentary narrative and mnemonic advantages.

My own working hypothesis is that narratives featuring Character Development offer three systematic accommodations that can potentially assist any reader in more easily remembering the temporal order of biographical events. To reiterate one last time, individual mileage will vary, but these mnemonic advantages are available whenever narratives feature Character Development. Obviously these dynamics won’t be evidenced in all memories of a reading but they’re evidenced often enough that we should be able to detail their mechanics. Finally, these three mnemonic advantages are best recognized by observing the narrative dynamics which make them available. In ascending order of both power and scope:

1. Some content self-sequences -- Cognitive memory research shows that information itself can dictate the mnemonic construction of relative times. In focusing on Character, we find temporal structure in self-sequencing memories of human growth (biological & psychological) and personal development (social, cultural, legal, political).

2. Common patterns enable efficiency -- According to Information Theory, arbitrary sequences may be translated into a compressed format when significant probabilities are observed in patterns of statistical redundancy. Thus, our familiarity with certain “predictive regularities” of human growth and development enables various algorithms for the efficient compression and reliable reconstruction of biographical storylines. In my own terms, such efficiency amounts to a measurably increased rememberability.

3. Contexts reflect past conditioning -- Developmental storylines, once constructed, may be informationally compressed into backwards chains of “necessary causality”, assuming that earlier situations are distinguished by their prerequisite alteration of situations which are therefore subsequent. In short, significant prior dynamics condition the developing storyworld residually. Note, however: this mnemonic advantage is entirely unlike that of "narrative causality”; their dynamics are actually inverse to one another.

Altogether, these dynamics are available to provide increased mnemonic efficiencies for any reader who tries to remember a biographical narrative. In fact, these resulting efficiencies in many ways helps to explain why biographies and biographical orientation in history remain endlessly popular.

Life stories are a different form of “Heroic Histories”, fixating on Character Development, rather than a traditional Plot. These narrative distortions continue to thrive by providing mnemonic advantages.

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In the next four posts, I'll continue looking Character Development and the process by which biographical orientation enables a more efficient remembering of life stories. My next three posts will take up the three bold points above, and my final post will conclude.

See you all back here soon...

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Special Note: In narrative theory, a literary “discourse” is supposed to produce a mnemonic “fabula”, defined as the readers’ retroactive understanding of story events in their chronological sequence. But in narrative practice, as we’ve just reviewed, readers often forget most of a biographical storyline, the timeline of a historical figure’s biological existence. This raises a theoretical problem for definitions of “fabula” but the practical problem is far more interesting to me.