July 18, 2014

Memory & Narrative, 5

Causality tends to be a central feature of memorable stories. To have a plot, to say that A led to B led to C, enhances the efficiency project by which narrative accomodates memory, because causality links A, B, and C into one unit, the connected backbone of a unified story. "I slipped, and I fell down, and I landed." Is that three events? Or is that one event? While details may be added (slipped on what? fell how far? landed which way?) the unmistakably contingent relationship of a slip, fall, and landing provides a mnemonic advantage in remembering this sequence as one story.

Causality, the memorable aspect of Plot, is a narrative device.

Causation, on the other hand, is a more dubious proposition.

The philosopher David Hume observed that perceiving cause & effect would enhance memorability, but ultimately refused to stipulate whether human beings were capable of absolutely delineating any actual cause. In other words, we might basically say, Causation is a matter of Physics and Causality is an aspect of Literature. That's okay for starters. But then, at the intersection of Science and Literature we find History.

In general, historians are well practiced at treating causation with a hefty dollop of dubiousness. We trust that causation exists, and deserves its proper due as we attempt to account for the past, but in narrating the causalities which might explain some historical transition, historians discuss context, conditions, and multiple causes. Like high school graduates who begin college Physics, we've learned that we *do* have to account for friction and wind resistance in reconstructing reasonable scenarios. Occam's razor is frequently found to be moot. When historians dig hard enough, we find causes multiplying, but not unnecessarily.

In short, historians deal with complexity. We make attempts to generalize, relativize and prioritize multiple causes. In the non-fiction narratives of professional historians, the plot is rarely oversimplified. Most historians do not reduce complex causes to categorical dependence on one factor. Cleopatra's beauty might have been one reason she wooed and won over Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, but it was not the only reason. A pretty face might have been one "necessary" cause for her bedding of two autocrats. It was not a "sufficient" enough cause to explain those relationships.

Historians are usually careful to build narratives that feature complex causality.

But Memory (collective, social, and personal) more often does quite the opposite.

In the popular memory of Abraham Lincoln, he single-handedly freed the American slaves. In some social group's memories of Ronald Reagan, he gets the almost full credit for ending the cold war. And so on. Elvis Presley started Rock and Roll. John F. Kennedy was elected because of TV. Yoko Ono broke up the Beatles. Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who married Jesus, or at least wanted to. True or false, these narratives all predominate in a significant bulk of the popular memory. What they all have in common is a simplified causality.

In narratological terms, the discourse proves to be less memorable than the story. (Or, the "fabula" proves to be more memorable than the detailed explanation of basic points in the plot line.) As Chatman saw, when presented with sequence, most readers perceive consequence, even if no consequence is implied. But Chatman and others put this effect down to familiarity with literature.

As I suspect you'll agree, this dynamic of imagining causation goes far beyond stories of literature.

It's been plausibly suggested that the largest religion of the world is actually superstition. If I do the right things in life, I'll get better parking spots at the grocery. If I yell at my sister, I might go to hell. Causality. Plot. Karma. Pennance. My sports team usually wins if I stay home and watch on TV. Mom got cancer so God could bring us closer together. We go through life looking for reasons and inventing those reasons more often than not. The most terrifying thing about Kafka's stories, observed E. H. Carr, was their complete lack of discernible causes. Nothing you do guarantees good fortune and bad people are not always punished. That's horrifying and disturbing. People prefer to think differently.

Aside from subconscious preference, however, I believe there are practical dynamics that encourage these types of perceptions to reach beyond short-term memory and become anchors of memorable stories.

The primary contentions of this series so far are (1) that memory requires efficiency, (2) that story is a phenomenon which reduces experience efficiently, and (3) that causality in particular is an excellent tool for maximizing efficient remembering.

What are some ways that causality focuses memory?

One of the most common historical fallacies is "post hoc, ergo propter hoc", but why is it so common? Hasn't it been beaten into us well enough? Why do so many of us still need to keep being reminded that B following A doesn't prove A caused B? The ubiquity of this fallacy, itself, requires some explanation.

Likewise, the "Great Man" theory of history is an overwhelmingly popular method of oversimplifying causality. It's a common mistake because it's a common perception. Not that it's strictly proper to describe any of this as a 'perception'.(*) At any rate, these are two common ways, that are causally based, by which people tend to mis-remember the past.

By the way... What if, instead of superstition and inflated causality being merely typical features of popular story-construction... What if it's somehow causality that's driving these memory processes? That is, instead of the human tendency to need "reasons for things" being a prima facie instinct from birth... What if our fixation on causality is something that became psychologically dominant only after our mnemonic needs allowed Plot do predominate our storied understanding of the world?(*)

(*)Note my "only after" makes this "necessary". I'm not claiming it to be sufficient. Causes usually are complex. At any rate, this sidebar is somewhat ancillary to my interests, so I've bumped some deeper thoughts about it to the bottom. See below.(*)

Let's not spend too much time asking why we ask why. That's one too many chicken/egg questions. Causality may have had a strong hand in developing Story - that is, the experience of cause and effect may be one reason we learned how to build stories(*) - but that's beyond my scope at the moment. The one thing I'm confident about is that causality is a primary factor in making stories more memorable.

That key idea is where I'm going to keep building this camp.

There's too much in the past, to remember it all. A story is a method for remembering efficiently. Causality is the most efficient kind of rememberable storying. We can observe patterns in the way causality serves as the focus of memories.

So far, so good?

In my next post, I plan to focus on more specific examples of how Memory tends to inflate "necessary causation" into "sufficient causality".

Anon, then...


Do these "misperceptions" of memory & story actually occur to our minds in the gestalt, as immediate perception? I don't think so. Although conventions of thinking accrue until we're eventually quite quick about perceiving occurrences and immediately placing them into pre-processed patterns of understanding, I think we have more grounds to see this as a two stage process no matter how quickly it happens. Furthermore, I must suppose each human child necessarily goes through the same process of developing a capacity for story-production - and this may also be the same process, in some ways, that ancient and/or prehistoric humans must have gone through in discovering narrative, so many ages ago.

Consider. We perceive things, those perceptions become short-term memories, and then we draw upon that material in constructing a story. At dinner you may be asked, "What did you do today?" The immediate (short-term) memories present themselves and you draw upon those in extemporaneously composing a ten second summary of your complex, multifaceted, twelve to fourteen hour long experience. Or, sometimes there's a particular anecdote which may be prepared and rehearsed for this dinner before arriving at home. In both cases, however, you necessarily take some moments to engage in a process of narrative composure, drawing upon the short term memories, which are based on recent perceptions of what we call your "lived experience".

You don't perceive life as a story immediately. You compose a story from memories.

As I said, this process may happen very quickly but I suspect it can only be profitably analyzed in this way, as a two stage process. Regardless, however, whatever it is that you do in those moments of composure, you construct a story by reduction as much or more than by positive "construction". You spent two hours at home depot. You narrate that in a few seconds. "Traffic was terrible." That's 45 minutes in three words. This is more than language. This is reduction, from memory, into story. The Memory comes first. The Story comes later.

At any rate, the manner and method in which you make these selections - the ways in which we build a personal story afresh by drawing from recent and/or immediate memories - that's a topic I may try to address more carefully in future posts of this series. Today, I'm just saying all that to lead up to what follows, now, here.

Regarding the issue of why we ask why, or why we fixate on reasons, or why we over-perceive "cause"...

Here is my initial hypothesis:

Aside from "efficient storying to accomodate memory", I do think there are two other significant factors which help explain our deep psychological interest in causality. One is that the ability to observe correlations in nature is a survival advantage, because natural correlations - things like seasons, sundown, storm clouds and high tide - often prove to be reliably predictable, and helpful indicators for knowing when to hunt, when to fish, when to store food, when to seek shelter, etc. Another key factor that explains our deeply felt need to express reasons for things is probably the legacy of primitive cultures in their emphasis on honor/shame. Causality enables survival and causality allows social judo, as we learn to influence others by giving credit and/or assigning blame. And of course, I may be missing other factors as well. These are two (or three) of the big ones.

However, even within these two big dynamics - survival and honor/shame - my basic thesis may not be unrelated.

If causality enables memorability in storying, it may be that discovering causality through nature's correlative aspects was a key factor that helped teach human beings how to create stories in our earliest existence. More directly, the process of forming predictions is, itself, a kind of narrative construction. A story is built by considering memories. Many times the hunting was better when the men began before dawn, but a "pattern" is not what gets formed in the mind. First, the memories accumulate. Second, a consistent sequence is observed. Third, a causal relationship is entertained. From that kind of experience - inflating sequence into consequence - it may be that causality was first "invented". Fourth, the causality enabled a simplified storying - the sequence simplified into one plot point. "Kill deer before dawn." The implied story, expanded: "When we go out before dawn, we're better at killing deer." Or something like that!

At any rate, that early process of forming predictions was probably a construction of narrative from short-term memories of lived experience. Likewise, the effective consignment of honor and shame requires a construction of narrative, based on remembered perceptions. Finally, the experience of conveying honor and shame taught, in turn, that inflicting a social judgment could itself produce certain social effects.

But try to think about these dynamics in their most original developing. Did human beings learn how to give credit and assign blame before or after we learned how to construct stories worth sharing with others? Did human beings learn how to anticipate causes (predict natural occurrences) before or after we learned how to narrate stories with cause & effect?

My guess would be that observing nature is what taught us to predict consequence based on correlation. The second development would be that predicting cause & effect was a key factor in teaching us how to tell stories. Third, our budding story-ability was soon applied to effect honor/shame classifications. It must have been a strange day when people first figured out that shaming someone could produce more social power than merely hitting somebody. But at this point, I'm far beyond the bounds of my inquiry.

One final note: if someone would protest my prioritizing above on the basis that non-human animals are well able to shame and defer to one another, I would counter-argue that animal behavior of such type tends to rely upon physical dominance. In contrast, the classical formulation of honor/shame culture tends to focus on personal agency, giving credit and locating blame, which is causality, which requires a sense of causality and the ability to narrate these concepts. So for this hypothesis, I'll keep honor/shame confidently in third place. My guess is that we observed causality in nature, learned how to tell stories with plots, and then began using our narrative abilities to win social battles - in that particular order. But if the ongoing development of these three trends was actually somewhat parallel, I'd still guess the origin of each process first arose 1-2-3, as I've listed them here.

Or maybe something like that...

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