March 6, 2015

Towards a Cognitive Science of Remembering Biographies (1 of 2)

autobiographical memory VS remembering biographies,
& cognitive psychology VS narratology

Life is very much unlike a story, except in our minds. In retrospect, the chaotic experience of “one damn thing after another” becomes a linked series of personal episodes, the memories we subjectively narrativize into a meaningful life story. Remembering is reconstructive, building above and beyond what is genuinely recalled, and yet even the most doctored of life stories will reflect (and/or refract) some representative aspects of an original experience. Thus, autobiography is a mixture of both art and science, the narrative being ‘constructed’ and the mnemonic development grounded in neuropsychology. There’s undeniably some narrative artifice in each instance of telling, but a bonafide cognitive science underneath all this making of tales. Life is not like a story, but stories do capture something of life, as perceived and remembered. In the final analysis, Autobiographical memory can be as veritable a process when specific memories prove false as when they prove true, and even when they're a little of both.

Whether auto- or otherwise, any biographical narrative depends on such a mixture as I’ve just described, but these principles are more relevant to considering life-writing as a process than biography as a product. Before publication, remembering and narrativizing are wrapped up together, supporting and/or subverting each other. Before publication, remembering and narrativizing can be an imprecise recipe, less like a clear mix of two parts and more like a goulash, a gumbo, an indiscernible stew. Again, that’s before publication. After publication, a biographical narrative is entirely narrative - or at least, it presents itself in that way to its audience. After publication, the biography represents an attempt to communicate story content into the minds of an audience, and while critics may try reconstructing the stew’s recipe, trying to separate parts from the whole, most readers will simply receive the narrative, enjoy what they can, and begin to digest. But the meal is designed both to please and to nourish. The received narrative (discourse) now hopes to survive as a memorable story (fabula). It’s at this point the project at hand becomes relevant. How does the narrative facilitate memory?

At any rate, remembering a biography seems very different than autobiographical memory, especially when the life story you’ve just finished reading isn’t your own.

This distinction has made it difficult to find a research basis for my study. I will now make remarks about three academic disciplines I have been reviewing:

1. Cognitive Science on Memory
2. Sociological Memory Theory
3. Cognitive Narratology

One: Cognitive Science on Memory ignores narrative theory.

From the perspective of cognitive psychology, all human memory is technically autobiographical, although many research psychologists work within other taxonomies, such as Endel Tulving’s (1972) distinction between “episodic memory” and “semantic memory”.  That’s a prominent classification, so it helps illustrate my quandary. Does remembering a biography fall into semantic memory, because the data received came in as “facts”, as mere words on a page? Unfortunately, research on semantic remembering tests recall of texts with short passages exclusively - Bartlett’s famous “The War of the Ghosts” was about 300 words - and nothing remotely like a 40,000 word novel. So then, to consider the alternative approach, does remembering a biography fall into episodic memory, because it represents a temporally lived human experience? Unfortunately, the literature on episodic memory looks at recollections of personal experience, by definition of the category, not recollections of reported experience. Obviously, the categorical taxonomy is irrelevant, because no one is working on this.

In fairness, the problem is daunting. You tell me, for a given reader, which mental fabula do you expect would be “larger”: that of Suetonius’ Augustus, which entails 76 years of a single world ruler’s life story with approximately 16,000 words, or Joyce’s Ulysses, which entails multiple lives being lived on a single day using 241,000? Is the word count more important than the timeline, or vice versa? And how long a report should a test subject have to make, about each? And if we measure only their words, are we measuring a fabula? Who knows?!?

The methodology of experimental psychology has long focused on textual reproduction through verbal repetition, at least since F.C. Bartlett’s groundbreaking study Remembering (1932). To be fair, Bartlett did briefly note that “the general form, or outline, is remarkably persistent, once the first version has been given” (p.93, Summary of Chapter 5, on remembering a 328 word story, “The War of the Ghosts”). Aside from that one comment, however, all the rest of his observations focus on story content rather than story structure. Bartlett’s project on stories was to show discrepancies in regurgitation of details, as evidence of his new theory, that memory was reconstructive. As rewarding as that contribution as been, the academic descendants of Bartlett have carried on his neglect of story structure, or plot, or fabula.

Cognitive scientists simply have not yet found (or sought to find, evidently) measurable ways for analyzing the story structure of a mental fabula, as opposed to the linguistic content of a textual discourse.
********** Two: Sociological Memory Theory focuses on politicized "narratives".

Another field that comes closer to considering **the Memory of a Story** is “Social Memory” a sociological approach to understanding narratives of the historical past. An amazing discipline (related but not identical to sociological research on “collective memory”) with brilliant scholars following in the footsteps of Maurice Halbwachs and Jan Assmann, the insights of social memory theory have forever changed my understanding of historical research and writing. Unfortunately for my purposes, academic work in social memory (and collective memory) only seems to talk about “stories” as a helpful euphemism for the transmission of “memories” due to social, cultural, and political influence. Interchanging “story” and “memory” works brilliantly for explaining how groups remember the past, but without careful and rigorous differentiation between functional aspects of memory & narrative, as non-identical concepts, social memory theory doesn’t help with my project to investigate the process of remembering a biography. In fact, it was noting this lack which pushed me into deeper research of narrative theory, last year.

I'm a big fan of social memory theory, especially what it's been doing for historical Jesus research, but it doesn't seem equipped to help me build a framework for understanding how story-structure might embed itself with an individual's personal memory, or how people remember a story's chronology.

This brings us, finally, to the blossoming sub-discipline of Cognitive Narratology.

Three: Narratology boldly engages with Cognitive Science, "but..."

Overall, Cognitive Narratology is a bright spot on the horizon, because - despite the fact that research psychologists continues to neglect narratology in their studies on memory (as mentioned above) - a growing handful of highly innovative English professors and other narrative theorists have spent the past fifteen to twenty years in researching terms and concepts from cognitive science for careful application to narratology, and that includes a cog-psych approach to memory. However, in following Cognitive Science, not surprisingly, that means these narratologists also have largely been following Bartlett’s lead, and have also remained caught within some of his limitations. Thankfully, at not yet twenty years old, the discipline is moving towards correcting this problem

The most prominent application in cognitive narratology, thus far, has been “schema theory”, the other major aspect of Bartlett’s 1932 theory. In short, schema theory suggests that readers draw upon personal experiences (the comfortably familiar) to accommodate gaps in comprehending a text. By relying on these mental “schemata” (or “scripts”, or “cognitive frames”), the reader’s personal memory facilitates interpretation, including basic comprehension of narrative situations conveyed by the discourse. But whether or not readers draw upon the appropriate knowledge, or whether they rationalize their own creative modifications of content that seemed unclear to them, schema theory is about pre-existing autobiographical memory being invoked during a reading. Unfortunately, schema theory [as applied by Narratologists] has nothing to say about remembering a new story, [a lengthy & elaborate storyline,] neither as segmented content nor as an integral whole. [Clarifications: 4/21/15]

Somewhat ironically, schema theory [again, I mean within in the field of Narratology] applies Bartlett’s conclusions about hermeneutical rationalizations being based on autobiographical memory, but it does not pursue Bartlett’s project of examining once-narrated stories in subsequent remembrance. (If it did, narratologists would likely have recognized Bartlett's lack of distinguishing between story & discourse.) However, to be fair, schema theory is hardly the sum total of cognitive narratology. It’s just the most prominent application that seems like it should be helpful, and yet isn't. Story, memory, and autobiography? Sounds close, but it's not what I'm after.

Fortunately, other trends within cognitive narratology are more promising by far.

Before adopting a specifically scientific approach, narrative theory had long been interested in how readers construct “the world of the story” on the inside of their minds. Long before the “Possible Worlds” of Jerome Bruner (1986) and Marie-Laure Ryan (1991), Mikhail Bakhtin (in a 1937 paper) suggested “chronotope” as a term for the “intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships” represented in a particular story. Other scholars would later refer to “Mental Models” (Phllip Johnson-Laird, 1983, and Rosemary Stevenson, 1996) and "Situation Models" (Teun van Dijk and Walter Kintsch, 1983) and “Narrative Worlds” (Richard Gerrig, 1993) and even more. However, it was not until Story Logic (2002) that David Herman brought in a new term worthy enough to summarize all the previous. For our mental apprehension of “the world of the story”, Herman helpfully coined the term “Storyworld”:
To my mind, both narrative theory and language theory should instead be viewed as resources for -- elements of -- the broader endeavor of cognitive science. The result: a jointly narratological and linguistic approach to stories construed as strategies for building mental models of the world. The second part of my introduction shifts the focus… [to] an investigation of the idea of “storyworlds,” a concept that will be foundational for specific arguments developed over the course of my study. Comparing storyworlds with analogous constructs (e.g., “story”, “deictic center”, “discourse model”, “contextual frame”) drawn from a number of research traditions, I attempt to give a sense of the integrative profile of my approach…
Four years later, in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, Herman could define “Storyworld” more succinctly, as “non-linguistic representations of the situation(s) described by a [set of] sentences” and, “global mental representations enabling language users to draw inferences” and “mental models of who did what to and with whom, when, where, why, and in what fashion in the world to which interpreters relocate (Ryan 1991) as they work to comprehend a narrative” (p.569-70). 

Compare that with Ryan’s taking the measure of these cognitive issues in her R.E.N.T. article on “Narrative” (p.346-7):
...can the mind hold a narrative without words, as when we memorise the plot of a novel, or when we tell our friends: I have a great story to tell you?” [/] The answer to this last question… lies in a technical distinction between ‘narrative’ and ‘story’... Narrative, in this view, is the textual actualisation of story, while story is narrative in a virtual form…
Ryan goes on to question the fabula/discourse distinction against Hayden White’s arguments (with Louis O. Mink, and against David Carr) that a story "is not a type of thing found in the world”. On this point, Ryan seems to agree with Mink and White, and here I believe all three are correct. But Ryan herself then moves closer to the real heart of the matter, and makes a positive claim:
Story is a mental image, a cognitive construct that concerns certain types of entities and relations between these entities” and later clarifies, “it does not take a text to inspire the construction of such an image: we may form stories in our mind as a response to life itself. (p.347)
This is what David Carr failed to understand, in objecting to Mink, and what Hayden White failed to mention (perhaps deliberately?). Life is very much unlike a story, except in our minds.

And that, you may remember, is where we began this humble post, today.

Here's my own tentative conclusion about all this so far.

All things considered, there is much hopeful news on the horizon of cognitive narratology. Unfortunately, these concepts have not yet made it back across the interdisciplinary aisle. Sadly, thus far, there seem to be no research psychologists or other cognitive scientists actively adopting the concepts and terminology of Herman & Ryan (or Monika Fludernik, or Manfred Jahn, or any other Cognitive Narratologist, to my knowledge). More’s the pity, especially because at the moment, of all the scientific research that’s available for citation in narratology papers, most is as I described it, above.

Cognitive research on memory is typically “episodic” and thus autobiographical (which feeds into schema theory and not much else, apparently) or else “semantic” and focused on content without much narrativity, per se, and without any distinction between a discourse and a fabula. As you can surely see by now, that leaves narratologists with little support for anything but reader-based theories that have to do with the reader’s past life, which is why schema theory gets so much play. It’s not the only place we need to be looking, but it is definitely one place where we do have a lot more light. Meanwhile, the best minds in narrative theory continue to refine their models of how mental storyworlds are constructed and invite cognitive scientists to make this exchange of ideas more like a two-way street. In fact, Herman’s latest book, Storytelling and the Sciences of Mind (2013) is an extended appeal “to move beyond a one-way importation of ideas from the sciences of mind into scholarship on narrative”. Amen. Lord, haste the day.

And yet, as Herman himself acknowledges repeatedly (2013), even his own strategies remain largely focused on the interpretation of literature. For all his (truly, amazing) ideas about “Storying the World” and “Worlding the Story”, it remains true by definition that cognitive narratology can’t get any farther than cognitive science has gone, not even with the inspired brilliance of Herman & Ryan, et al. Until that changes (and I hope I am missing someone, but if so, their impact has not grown very large as of yet) academic research on remembering a narrative appears to be no farther along than it was for F.C. Bartlett. Furthermore, all that is to say nothing of remembering a biographical narrative with an expansive time frame in the fabula.

To advance, we don’t need more Cog-Psych applied to the study of Literature.

We need a bit of Narratology applied to the science of Remembering.

But hold everything... 

There’s one possible way in which we might already have what we need. Contrary to everything I just said, we might consider that the sciences of memory have occasionally thought in terms of story-structure… that is, assuming we define “narrative” according to temporality. Or better yet, and to be more precise, I mean assuming we define “time itself" to be an aspect of narrative!

In part two (of two), we’re going to look at cognitive research on Remembering Time.

To be continued...


Special Note (A):

In his R.E.N.T. article, David Herman explicitly rates “storyworld” as an improvement over the terms “story” and “fabula” because the term storyworld “better captures what might be called the ecology of narrative interpretation… not just what happened but also the surrounding context or environement”. I cannot disagree with this point, except to say that while “storyworld” does best capture the world of the story in our imagination, its geographical context rather leaves out the aspect of temporal chronology which “story” and “fabula” have traditionally represented. So, in my humble opinion, unless Herman wants to redefine “storyworld” to include more explicit reference to a timeline of some sort, it seems “storyworld” is both better and not better than “story” or “fabula”. Personally, I intend to use “storyworld” as a complementary term, but “story and “fabula” will remain my chief focus, because my interest is entirely focused on narrativizing the historical past over time.

Special Note (B):

The next most prominent model of cognitive narratology, aside from schema theory, is probably the one called "Situation Model". Prior to now, I had gathered the impression that instances of this model were much like schema theory, basing reader interpretation largely on autobiographical memory and thus not so much on the text itself (per se). However, I have just tonight found reason to question that impression. I will look more closely at "Situation Models" (and more) in the very near future.

Anon, then...

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