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Remembering Life Stories (3): Biographical Temporality

Temporal content appears in biographical narratives not just through "sufficient causality" but in material that aligns with common patterns of human growth and personal development. Such content structures stories not by Plot but by Character. We identify this material in biographical literature by considering three patterns: "necessary causality", statistical probability, and correlation with recognized "time patterns". Extensive illustrations are included. (This is post 3 of 6.)

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Having previously identified self-sequencing memory in two areas (narrativized causality, as in the “post hoc” stylings of an Aristotelian Plot, and human mortality, by which birth and death provide every life story’s chronological Beginning and End), my last post adapted the more generally applicable work of William Friedman, who showed that we remember chronology (“the time of events”) by reconstructing temporal context from the informational content of preserved bits of memory (and associated knowledge). Thanks to Friedman, I feel justified in defining “temporal content” as “mnemonic content that structures itself" or "implies its own sequence".

With all this in mind we come to the practical question of literary biography.

What kinds of temporal content are typically found in narrated life stories? What helps readers remember a biographical storyline? Obviously all biographies feature human mortality, and many biographies feature narrativized causality, but what other types of raw narrative material typically convey the kind of temporal content readers use to mnemonically re/construct a sequence of life story events? In short, what kinds of information help the mind chronologize life stories according to character development, without relying on narrative causality?

Obviously, that exclusion has been the tricky part.

Building story structure around character development can depend largely on identifying a sequence of conditional prerequisites. But how can we identify life story progressions based on “necessary causality” when we’ve disallowed the narrativizations of “sufficient causality”? This requires something more than a categorical distinction. We need to distinguish these two causalities differently than historians or physicists (determining relative measures of actual causation) and differently than literary critics (categorizing ways in which composition supplies that which narrative requires). To maintain our focus on cognitive memory theory, we need to distinguish “necessary causality” and “sufficient causality” in terms of how they function as tools of constructive remembering.

Things happened. Storytellers purported causalities. But an audience member’s ability to remember that story is affected by which type of narrative “causality” is employed.

When memories are encoded with the narrative structure of “sufficient causality”, either cause or effect may evoke one another. Besides logical deduction, there is the original encoding of the mnemonic association. Each trace memory has been created in such a way that its own informational context requires (implies, evokes, triggers) a necessary remembering of the associated trace. The mnemonic associations are mutually reinforcing and reciprocal. When encoded as such, the cause evokes the effect and the effect evokes the cause. If both bits of information are preserved, either one will necessarily trigger a reconstruction of their temporal relationship as prior and subsequent. (Or, if you prefer to suppose only one bit is preserved, but preserved as originally encoded, then the embedded information in that bit should necessarily reconstruct the other. Yes, of course there’s distortion in this, but - as we must never forget - that’s what "sufficient causality" is.)

The meta-level of memory flips our terminology. “Sufficient causality” implies sequence necessarily. “Necessary causality” doesn’t necessarily imply anything.

When memories are encoded with the narrative structure of “necessary causality”, the cause and effect do not have an equal ability to evoke one another. The outcome is encoded to reflect its necessary precondition, but the precondition encoded as such does not embed enough information to require (imply, evoke, trigger) the memory of any particular outcome. Even if both memory traces are preserved, their associations are not mutually reinforcing and the temporal implication is non-reciprocal. The effect evokes its cause but the cause does not automatically evoke its effect. The “necessary” association is absolute when remembering “backward”, but triggering that association is not absolutely necessary when remembering “forward”.

As Friedman demonstrated, it’s all about the information. Preserving information about a development reflects information about preconditions, but preserving information about preconditions doesn’t embed information which necessitates later developments. Because the mnemonic content is encoded differently for these types of priors and subsequents, the remembering of “necessary causality” works differently in the forward and backward directions. If the mind works to reconstruct time in a backward direction, the “necessary effect” absolutely implies its own “necessary cause”. But to reconstruct time in a forward direction, the remembering mind must make a logical leap to link prior and subsequent - and this is true even when both bits of information are preserved!

Surprisingly, however, this logical leap is not completely bereft of assistance. Although necessary prerequisites do not imply necessary effects, prerequisite causes do imply possible outcomes.  In fact, prerequisites often imply one or more probable outcomes. Despite lacking absolute causality, we do not fall all the way back to a completely freestyle “fill in the blanks” model of constructive remembering (as we often do in situations addressed by schema theory). Rather, when leaping forward in time from the memory of a prerequisite, the remembering mind is provisionally enabled to “connect dots” from within a selection of probable outcomes.
Cue inspirational music. We just passed through causation and drilled down into correlation.

In post #1, I said “our familiarity with certain predictive regularities of human growth and development enables various algorithms for the efficient compression and reliable reconstruction of biographical storylines”. These “predictive regularities” involve what I have just been explaining, and the algorithms for efficient compression will be the focus on post #4. Also in post #1, in the very next paragraph, I said that developmental storylines “may be informationally compressed into backward chains of “necessary causality””. Having touched on this also, here above, we will focus more on those types of compressions in post #5.

What remains for today (here in post #3) is to identify instances of temporal content in life stories that builds on Character rather than Plot. We have just observed two patterns that mark such content, and we can add a third pattern more directly in line with William Friedman’s research (post #2).

The first pattern is “necessary causality” as reflected in biographical development. The second pattern is probability as conditioned by developmental prerequisites. The third pattern is any statistical correlation which conforms to what Friedman called “time patterns”. (This third pattern can be redefined more purely in terms of statistical correlations (familiar frequencies and/or regular occurrences of conditioned outcomes), but that’s enough stats talk for the moment.

The pertinent issues should become more understandable as we begin to look at examples.

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Let’s begin with the most distinctive of our three patterns - probability as conditioned by developmental prerequisites. If some life experience or narrative material is seen as a “necessary cause”, and encoded within trace memory as a precondition, then there remains a good chance the mind will successfully reconstruct a timeline by trying to recall trace memories that may be associated with one or more of the given precondition’s probable outcomes.

Consider the familiar experience of autobiographical memory.

Let’s say you have an old high school friend who joined the army after graduation. Now let’s further suppose that at some moment you happen to recall that this friend did join the army, and you find yourself trying to remember when this occurred. Because turning eighteen is a prerequisite to joining the army, both logic and general knowledge can assist you in remembering that your old friend was indeed eighteen at the time. Again, if you first remember that your friend joined the army, and this reminds you about standing with her/him at high school graduation, then you’ve just constructively remembered temporal content in the backward direction.

In the forwards direction, however, if you first remember the old high school friend and then find yourself trying to remember what she/he did after graduation, the fact that turning eighteen is a prerequisite to enlistment does not necessarily help you recall anything. If your memory of that later development is lost, you would merely be guessing, and probability alone could lead anyone to consider that military service is often one of the top four or five leading career choices popular among high school graduates. But if your memory of that later development is not utterly lost, if the trace of that information has merely become faded over time, then probability offers more assistance to you than to anyone else. If the memory is accessible, your familiarity with the common patterns of human experience helps you “narrow the search”. Rather than trying to “fill in the blank” by searching your mind aimlessly, your awareness of the most likely outcomes allows you to search your mind specifically for traces of any previously encoded memory that happens to match one of the probable outcomes. Again, if a previously encoded memory trace is accessible, the chances are good you’ll succeed.

We pause to note three key points briefly. First, this scenario is not an outworking of “natural logic” or “causality” because the mnemonic assistance comes from your personal familiarity with statistical frequencies - which, themselves, are not comprehensively dictated by natural logic or direct causation. Second, this example of remembering seems obviously similar to situations where “logic” (or familiar schemas) assist the creation of false memories, and to situations where the “successful” reconstruction involves a previously encoded false memory. In the scenario above, probability assisted in recalling a “true” trace memory. In other scenarios, probability can assist in recalling false traces or inventing new memories. But as I said in post #2, the reliability of content must be held apart from the “reliability” (or plausibility) of structure. Any of these situations illustrate that probability enables the constructive remembering of timelines. But this brings up our third point. Concerns about “false memory” in such scenarios can be largely alleviated when we leave autobiographical memory and focus on remembering literature. My memory of content from a literary narrative can be looked up and verified.

I think I remember that Lincoln was a Senator before he became President. I know most U.S. Presidents were Senators or Governors, and a few had been Generals. But I think Lincoln was a Senator. Notice how this is not strictly a guess. It’s not even mostly a guess. The odds help in two ways; they limit my options and they boost my general confidence, both of which reinforce my specific confidence, which is that I happen to feel strongly that I’ve remembered correctly. We could look it up. But you already know that in this case I did remember correctly.

By the way, this Lincoln example belongs to category three. It’s a purely non-causal statistical correlation. Note the backward reconstruction (from president to one of three previous positions) and yet there is no necessary employment prerequisite before “president”. This is neither category one, nor two. This is a statistical pattern of common temporal progression. We reconstructed backwardly, assisted by probability. For remembering temporality, conventional sequences are as helpful as causative influences.

We’ll come back to that point in a moment. Here’s another example.

Encoding information that “The queen died of grief” associates cause and effect so mutually (through the narrative distortion of “sufficient causality”) that recalling either point can trigger a recall of the other, and recalling in either direction reinforces the selfsame mutual association. Remembering the queen’s death reminds us of her grief, and remembering her grief reminds us that it killed her; or at least, that is what we have so long believed. Note how the prior implies its own subsequent as strongly as the subsequent implies its own prior. This is what I meant about the mnemonic association of narrativized causality being “bi-directional”.

Contrast this with encoding information that “The queen became a great-grandmother”, which implies she had previously become a grandmother, and previously a mother. Note how this implication is not reversible. Encoding a memory that “The queen birthed a child” or that “The queen became a grandmother” embeds no absolute implication about later developments. Becoming a great-grandmother reflects (implies, evokes, triggers) that she had been a grandmother, and becoming a grandmother embeds the information that she had previously given birth to a child. Note, however, this is once more not merely “natural logic”. You have heard of Elizabeth, Charles, William, and George, I presume.

In this example, the subsequents imply their own necessary priors, not merely because logic requires it but because logic assists us in remembering this woman, Queen Elizabeth, and her next three successors. This is what Friedman called a “time pattern”, a previously established familiarity with the frequently observed (and often narrated) pattern in human experience - that being the succession of generations. Again, each subsequent in this chain implies its own priors, but each prior can only imply possible subsequents. If you did not recall that Elizabeth has a son, you could not succeed in “remembering” that Elizabeth has a grandson. But if you do recall this prerequisite event, the probability assists you in recalling whether the next likely outcome (in a familiar sequence or “time pattern”) may have occurred.

Remembering a prerequisite makes it easier to recall probable outcomes.

These are biographical patterns of life story development and they enable the efficient rememberability of story structure by focusing on Character rather than Plot. (Ta-da!)

All grandmothers had previously become mothers, and many mothers go on to become grandmothers. Every adult survived infancy, and most infants live to adulthood. All army soldiers must be eighteen or older, and some eighteen year olds join the army. Every doctoral candidate was once a lowly undergraduate, but few college freshman pursue Ph.D status.

That's probably just enough to make my point. Let's wrap up this argument and I'll append tons more examples at the bottom of this post. Look for additional insights there as well. There is much more to note about all of this, as we go on with our study. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

We have looked at examples of story content in which outcomes automatically imply preconditions, in which preconditions partially assist in implicating probable outcomes, and in which other statistical patterns enable similarly assisted reconstructions from preserved trace memory content. These examples are common in biographies and other literary narratives - among other reasons - because they enable readers to attain greater efficiency in remembering the timeline of a lengthy, elaborate storyline. These examples of temporal content have implied their own sequence without recourse to the narrativizations of post hoc causality. They imply story structure by focusing on Character Development, rather than Plot.

If you like, we might label this type of temporal content as biographical temporality.

So that's all very impressive, you say, but where does this leave us for remembering a life story?  More importantly, where do we next go from here in continuing this study?

Focusing on any type of temporal content is one layer of mnemonic efficiency. Bits of temporal content can easily imply their own sequence, but the mnemonic challenge increases when we attempt to string together several bits of sequencable data points, as one coherent timeline.

The remembering mind can repeatedly reconstruct any timeline, refreshing a memory of the overall sequence by focusing on bits of temporal content in chains of association, either by linking multiple pairs or by aligning individual data points with one or more pre-determined “time patterns”. In any of these cases, remembering a storyline involves once more renewing the work of constructive remembering. In practice, this probably accounts for the common experience of many readers who attempt to actively remember how story content fits into its most appropriate chronological (that is, its historical and/or logical and/or probable and/or authorially intended) sequence. But some minds also find more efficient ways to remember a sequence.

There are further levels of efficiency to attain by compressing a chain of temporal content into a more rememberable sequence. An entire biographical narrative can be remembered coherently, as a unified whole in the sense of its storyline, and not just in the ubiquity of its featured subject.

Come back for post #4, in which we consider compression algorithms of information theory.

Come back for post #5, in which we consider teleology as a reflection of nested preconditions.

And come back for post #6, in which I will try to summarize and conclude.

Anon...


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I promised more examples of temporal content in life stories - fully or partially self-sequencing information which aligns with “time patterns” through necessity, probability, and correlation. To identify these, we can largely focus on illustrations of human growth and personal development.

Two predominant trajectories are biological growth and psychological development.

Childhood, for example, is chock-full of biological prerequisites. Babies roll over before they can stand up, crawl before they can walk, gnaw before they can bite, and babble before they can properly form words. Children do not mature sexually before surviving a dozen or more solar cycles. Teenage mothers are far less likely to die in childbirth, and elderly women can no longer conceive. Neither boys nor old men may capably plow a field. And etc. Most of this data suggests “natural logic” if employed in the backward construction, and probability for constructing in the forward construction. Not every child survives to reach the next “stage” in progressing toward adulthood, but most growing children survive each successive prerequisite, and every adult was obviously once a child.

As these physiological “beginnings” and “endings” help to sequence a life story’s “middle”, most remembering minds inevitably come to some degree of envisioning “stages of growth”. Being subjective, this obviously varies a lot. Some of us might be content to perceive broad developmental phases (childhood, adulthood, infirmity), or construct narrower time periods (infancy, childhood, adolescence, parenthood, empty nest, retirement), while others might go by decades (twenties, thirties, forties, etc), and some rare minds might even insist on a more meticulous accounting by exact years of age. These are all Friedman-esque “time patterns” and any one of them can regulate temporal content, because the natural trajectory of biological development is apparent at literally any rate of subjective periodization. Some of us don’t distinguish between eighteen and twenty year olds, and sometimes old folks don’t distinguish between thirty and forty year olds, but nobody confuses a five year old with a twenty year old, and no one overlaps the “life stages” of a young thirty-something and her elderly grandfather.

I said in post #1 that we cannot rely on this or that particular paradigm of “life stages”, but I am saying now that an individual mind can rely on any subjective paradigm that serves the purpose well enough. However we slice it, define it, or label it, the natural progression of biological development is self-evidently sequential. We speak before we can write, become parents before we are grandparents, and if we die of old age then we must decline somewhat in general health prior to that. Etc, etc, etc.

In Friedman’s terms, a broken hip can be associated with the “time pattern” of old age and finger painting can be associated with the “time pattern” of kindergarten. The options are literally as unlimited as the statistical patterns which happen to be familiar to any remembering mind.

Familiarity is huge, by the way. For probability to enable more efficient remembering, frequency and familiarity have to align. In fact, that’s the only reason biography is a special category of remembering temporality. 

Human development isn’t the only category of earthly experience in which probability implies temporality (that is, not the only area in which we might often note frequent progress within statistically observable patterns of change). That's not remotely the case. Actually, human development is simply the most popular category in which statistical frequency aligns with an intense familiarity that we all share for a single subject. Change happens. Dynamic systems develop. People watch people. And statistical patterns mount gradually. It’s only when all of these factors combine that a literature gains a broad platform for conveying temporality within content an audience can recognize. ((***The same exact thing is what accounts for narrativized causality. Purporting causation literally depends on statistical correlation. That is, it depends on inflating a claim based some degree of relative correlation. But perhaps I digress.***))

Compared to biological growth, psychological development is probably less helpful - because it’s less frequently observable - but in terms of statistical correlations the progressions of cognitive growth are potentially just as helpful as anything. If the mind preserves temporal content, an awareness of probability can enable mnemonic reconstruction of temporality.

At this point I won’t keep belaboring the memory theory, but we should continue to identify biographical examples of probable outcomes.

Not many biographies linger on early childhood, or puberty and adolescence, which is when cognitive development tends to evidence itself in observable “leaps”, but the research of Jean Piaget does qualify here, technically. The vast majority of 9 month olds have developed object permanence (things still exist once removed from their sight). A predominant majority of two year olds have developed symbolic awareness (early language development). A typical eight year old can usually demonstrate logical thinking (such as cause & effect). And many twelve year olds can begin to engage and utilize abstract concepts (literary techniques, scientific method, basic algebra, political bias).

This covers the bulk of a human population through the 8th or 9th grade, in that most post-pubescent adolescents have already passed over these cognitive thresholds. We can also note very generally some adult patterns. Most adults develop mature thinking (outcome) through difficulties (prerequisite) and emotional instability by an adult (outcome) can be a likely indicator of a difficult childhood (prerequisite). Declining mental capacity is not unlike the onset of physical infirmities, in that it usually appears during the later decades of an average lifespan.

Adults also display cognitive development by acquiring and increasing in particular knowledge. We can often estimate an adult’s years of experience in some area of skill (though not necessarily their age, obviously) by comparing the extent of acquired knowledge and skills. An adept mechanic most likely has years of experience. An inept mechanic is most likely a rookie. However, one complication of this acquired knowledge category is that all statistical likelihoods vary according to social demographics. If a character is discussing retirement planning, they would most likely be older than 50, but in some social sets college students and young professionals can often be found advising one another on retirement. On the positive side, this example does illustrate that temporal content can potentially help sequence all sorts of material, although the likely usefulness of such content can scale quickly towards zero.

Again, psychological change is less observable and less chronologically definite. Like mortality, it offers a broad trajectory of early growth and later decline, but it is merely a probable and non-necessary trajectory. The recognizable milestones, or what Friedman calls "landmarks", aren’t less plentifully apparent in this area. But perhaps they are more apparent to specialists.

A few identifiably cognitive milestones can be found near the end of a lifetime. Memory loss is common but not necessarily typical. Social difficulties can deteriorate towards extreme dysfunction. There can be various indications of a stroke or some other impairment which may indicate that a person (or biographical character) whose timeline we are trying to remember had almost certainly, by that point, reached a period of naturally declining health. Clearly, these types of indicators imply that related story content belongs to a time period after biographical phases when good health would have been a necessary prerequisite. And here’s one for history buffs. In ancient times, before the advent of pharmaceuticals, people were rarely known to recover from insanity. Thus, historians debate when Caligula’s apparent madness may have begun, but when we remember story content from the craziest episodes of Suetonius’ account, we instinctively place those anecdotes near the end of his life.

So much for biology and psychology of human growth and deterioration.

Let’s consider the recognizable conventions that occur within social, cultural, and political patterns of personal development.

These developmental sequences (or “stages”) are based in shared experiences that are less universal than biological or psychological growth & decay, but as we have noted, any statistical frequency is fair game as long as it’s familiar to the remembering mind. More broadly, of course, we prefer to identify familiar frequencies which are well-recognized enough that could benefit an entire audience through their temporal indications. But in this exercise we’ll note whatever we can note. For instance, I confess my own sights here have mostly settled on the following generalization: It is axiomatic of literary practice that authors and audiences will quite often share a similar if not identical context for cultural traditions, enforced social standards, standard customs and behavioral norms. When these patterns bear temporal implications, it may be only due to these smaller statistical samples of a literary audience that shares a demographic subpopulation. The employees of Google, for example, must have unique ways to spot the newbies on their campus, and these temporal indicators are undoubtedly quite different than whatever helps veteran stock brokers spot the rookies on Wall Street.

That said, progressions across cultures may appear in the same general areas. Education and apprenticeship most often imply adolescence and early adulthood while advanced positions in organized institutions are typically not earned until later in life. Likewise, it is most common that a recent marriage typically reflects two people an early stage of adulthood, while in some cultures an older husband and younger bride are more customary, and yet in some populations marriage could rarely imply more than the legal age of consent. Despite differing specifics, these general categories of human experience can inform story content that becomes explicitly self-sequencing, to any audience in the know.

Many social and cultural examples have a lot to do with family and career. Besides marriage, the typical age of child bearing can be a trend based as much if not more upon societal expectation as biological limits, and yet in some circles pregnancies are scheduled according to social pressure, and this scheduling itself varies widely according to group. Likewise, the tell-tale signs of an “empty nest” household is only an indicator of some parents’ biological age as is frequent (and familiar) within sub-cultures. Again, however, as often as such knowledge is familiar between author and audience, this content can also self-sequence.

For probabilities of political development, there’s no better example than Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, which exhibit a more detailed story structure for readers in the know (readers who are familiar with the customary sequence of advancement in Roman public life and military appointment) than for readers who do not happen to be acquainted with ancient Italian political norms.

With these same caveats, we might also consider a few culturally conditioned examples of accumulation of money, possessions, accomplishment, or even the social accumulation of friends and family members. In general, more time usually equates to more accumulation. We can likewise estimate age - of endeavors, not persons - by observing the extent of accumulated damages, physical wear and tear, incremental social or economic decline, or other accumulated defeats and personal losses. As above, the qualification of any such case will depend not on whatever we estimate as a necessary or a probable or a typical time pattern. At this point, I shouldn’t need to suggest more specific examples, much less defend them.

As ought to be clear by now, the remembering mind can build a time pattern from any perceived phenomena that are frequently (and familiarly) display the same temporal sequence. Further, any statistical pattern can assist the remembering mind in the process of sequencing story content.

Finally, whenever such frequencies are familiar to a large number of remembering minds, such that the inclusion of such data assists many minds in remembering the storyline of a particular biographical narrative, the inclusion of those frequencies - those particular indicators of temporality in human growth and development - those types of patterns in narrated story content will provide an advantage towards the survival of that biographical narrative among a popular audience.

These are just a few basic examples of how biographical material displays temporal transition through character development.

This concludes the bonus section below post #3, identifying types of content which self-sequence in life stories.

Come back for three more posts in this series, as outlined in my conclusion above.

Anon, my friends...