July 12, 2014

Memory & Narrative, 3

We design stories to accommodate mnemonic limitations. We pass on stories that are especially memorable, or ones we hope will at least be "remember-able". We tell stories to impress an audience, to upload our point of view into their personal memory by anchoring a poetic effect to the basic elements of one particular story. But whether or not the nature and limits of memory is what explains how and why human storying developed, it does seem to be these mnemonic concerns have definitely influenced the way narratives take shape and the kinds of things most stories contain.

For today's example, consider Plot, also known as Causality. My thesis here is quite simple:

Plot became a big part of stories and history because plot helps us remember the past more efficiently.

We begin with the literature. It's well established that most written narratives are dominated by plot. The other four basic elements of all stories - character, conflict, setting, and theme - are often determined by plot, or at least revolve entirely around plot. While different plots might bend more towards motive or mayhem, combining personal intentions and cosmic accidents in a series of dependent contingencies, it remains true in all cases that the central element of plot - that being causality - is so ingrained within narrative that literary scholars debate whether narrative is best defined by causality.

E. M. Forster defined plot as the connected causalities within a story. Similarly, Ricoeur said plot is a story's cohesion, the coordination of causes, intentions, and accidents. In short, plot is sequence plus explanation.

Please note, that explanation isn't always what people like to call accurate or true. Nevertheless, whether real or imagined, causality makes a story cohere. All stories are "sticky", but causality seems the most sticky by far.

In Forster's famous example, Story A - "The king died and then the queen died" - is a story with two events, told in chronological sequence. In contrast, Story B - "The king died and then the queen died of grief" - is a story that features a plot. But in Powell's words, "Chatman pushes Forster's argument a step further. The principle of causation is so strong in literature [that] the reader expects it and will in fact infer it when it is not stated." Thus, Forster's first example, "The king died and then the queen died" will most likely imply causality in the minds of the audience.

I agree with this tendency, but Mark Allen Powell and Seymour Chatman seem to put the effect down to long term conditioning. Are we likely to insert causality into a story simply because we're used to seeing causality in other stories, primarily in literature? This seems doubtful, for obvious reasons.

Why do readers infer causality where causation was not implied? While we're at it, what makes people so superstitious in personal experience? You put on a blue shirt, and then your team wins the game. The instinct to conflate sequence and consequence is so strong in most people that we can't be satisfied leaving this inquiry to the realm of literature proper. But with lots more to say about this point in future posts, I have to keep this post on the main topic if possible:

How might causality help illustrate the relationship between memory and narrative?

In earlier posts, I've suggested that conventions of storying are primarily shaped by the limitations of human remembering. If that's true at all then Forster's illustration deserves a mnemonic analysis, aided perhaps by a rudimentary pinch of information theory as well.

In order to memorize Forster's first story, as rendered, there are four points of information which must be recalled.
  1. the king died
  2. the queen died
  3. the two deaths now make one story
  4. the king died first (or, the queen died second)
However, by introducing causality, in Forster's second story, there is now only half as many details that require remembering.
  1. the queen died
  2. because the king died
The reason this shrinks so dramatically is quite simple. Since causality implies both connectedness and order, causality facilitates a more efficient remembering of these multiple details as one story. One simple "because" embeds cause, sequence and coherence, all in a stroke.

In Story A, nothing stipulates why these two events should even be mentioned together. Why is this not two separate stories? (Thus, argue some, narrative may not be defined without causality.) Furthermore, Story A gives us no implicit way to remember whether the king or the queen was the one who died first. (And narrative without causality is defined by event sequence, or "temporality".)

How can the non-causal story have any chance of being remembered? As these lists hopefully show, it takes at least twice as much mental doing. Story B has order and coherence built into each information point by the nature of plot. Story A has order and coherence only by attaching a super-structure to the original remembrances. (By the way, sometimes structuralist theories seem to me like all chicken, no egg. But now I really digress.)

David Hume perhaps said it first and later researchers have observed it for decades, not least within pedagogy & educational psychology. People remember stories better when there's causality involved.

Until now, however, I've always heard this explained as if causality just happens to aid memory, a fortunate fact which still appears to be true any practical teaching perspective. From another angle, today, I have to say I suspect the inverse is even more true. I believe memory is what pushes us towards causality.

Memory theorists have showed that memory distortion is often affected by story construction. My view is that our conventions of story construction often embrace that distortion for the sake of memorability.

It's the nature and limitations of remembering that create such a need for us to perceive sequence as consequence. By inflating "post hoc" to "propter hoc", we embed both sequence and connectedness. Stories become more easily "remember-able". Otherwise, how could we ever remember so much of the past?

As I said in post #1, the primary problem with remembering the past is that there's simply far too much to remember. Efficiency must be a part of the process. And causality accommodates efficient remembering.

And yet, there is much more to consider...

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-- Isaac Newton