April 1, 2017

Cognitive Emplotment

Narratologist Mieke Bal defined "fabula" (story) as what remains in memory after receiving a discourse. Taking that notion seriously suggests that literary coherence is a cognitive phenomenon. While I haven't yet found anyone in the field of cognitive narratology looking at plots (and other storylines) from the standpoint of working memory and/or constructive remembering, I hope to find someone who might want to help me build something more publishable from this humble blog project of mine. For now, here's a working thesis in three basic points. A bibliography is appended below.


(1) Constructing a fabula during reading involves “working memory” (Baddeley 1986, 2000; Baddeley & Hitch 1974) and reconstructing a fabula after reading involves “constructive remembering” (re-sequencing bits of information recalled from “long term memory”; Schacter 1996, 2013).

(2) For the fabula to be chronological, the story content must convey self-sequencing temporal implications (Friedman 1993); causality and probability convey such implications, with causal event sequences attaining mnemonic coherence more efficiently than probable event sequences (Kukkonen 2017; Shannon & Weaver 1949); frequent patterns of human behavior are “cognitively chunked” due to human expertise at observing one another (Ericsson 2013, 2014; Chase & Simon 1973; Miller 1956).

(3) The coherence of particular storylines therefore varies depending on the “informational redundancy” of their underlying content (i.e., how many structurally significant bits of story content are evoked and/or logically implied by one another), and recognizing that coherence is thus variable (i.e., that narrative unity is relative) thereby suggests that “Plot” is not a singular category but the upper range on a spectrum of coherence. In this spectrum of "Narrative Redundancy", we may find (e.g.) historical chronicles near the lower range, (e.g.) life stories near the middle, and (e.g.) classical emplotments towards the upper extremity.

In sum, the stories (storylines) we seem to hold in our minds are actually reconstructed from bits and pieces of memory, and the efficiency of this constructive remembering process is where our sense of coherence actually comes from. When the chronological fabula reassembles quite easily, and when it does not, that cognitive efficiency or inefficiency is largely due to specific informational content (Friedman, 1993). Therefore, coherence is not an absolute quality, a category of construction, but rather it is a relative quantity, a byproduct of cognitive reconstruction (remembering).


Two possible applications of this thesis could be (A) helpfully complicating Hayden White’s paradigm of chronicles versus emplotments, and (B) introducing cognitive memory research as a scientific basis for theorizing the nature and origins of all human storytelling, both fiction and non-fiction. In cognitive terms, selectivity can be merely attentional, and emplotment can be largely mnemonic compression. The distortion of remembered (or imagined) experience enables increased coherence, which is “rememberability”.

I've blogged over 30,000 words on this (so far) during my multiple series on Time in Memory. Eventually, I may have to pursue formal graduate studies to get this done properly, but my family and my budget are holding out hope that some kind professional will catch fire on this topic and agree to collaborate. If neither of those ever happens, at least it's here on my blog. Despise not small beginnings, nor standing on the shoulders of giants hobbits.


Here's the bibliography of works cited above:

Baddeley, A. D. Working memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Baddeley, A. D. “The episodic buffer: A new component of working memory?” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 4, 11, (2000): 417-423.
Baddeley, A. D., and Hitch, G. “Working memory.” In G.H. Bower (Ed.), The Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Advances in Research and Theory (Vol. 8, pp. 47–89). New York: Academic Press, 1974.
Chase, W. G., and Ericsson, K. A. “Skilled memory.” In J. R. Anderson (Ed.), Cognitive Skills and Their Acquisition (pp.141-189). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1981.
Chase, W. G., and H. A. Simon. 1973. “Perception in chess.” Cognitive Psychology. 4:55-81.
Ericsson, K. A., and Moxley, J. H. “Experts’ superior memory: From accumulation of chunks to building memory skills that mediate improved performance and learning.” In T. J. Perfect & D. S. Lindsay (Eds.), SAGE Handbook of Applied Memory (pp. 404-420). London, UK: Sage Publishing, 2014.
Ericsson, K. A. “Exceptional memory and expert performance: From Simon and Chase’s theory of expertise to skilled memory and beyond.” In J. Staszewski (Ed.), Expertise and Skills Acquisition (pp. 201-228). Abington, Oxon, UK: Taylor & Francis, 2013.
Ericsson, K. A., and Kintsch, W. “Long-term working memory.” Psychological Review 102, no. 2 (1995): 211-245.
Friedman, William J. “Memory for the Time of Past Events.” Psychological Bulletin 113, no. 1 (1993): 44–66.
Kukkonen, Karin, “The Self-Organizing Plot.” Paper presented at the annual conference of the International Society for the Study of Narrative. Lexington, Kentucky. March 23, 2017.
Miller, George A. “The Magical Number Seven, plus or minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” Indianapolis: College Division of Bobbs-Merrill, 1965.
Schacter, Daniel L., Scott A. Guerin, and Peggy L. St. Jacques. “Memory Distortion: an adaptive perspective.” Trends in Cognitive Science. Cambridge, Massachusetts. October 2011. Vol. 15, No. 10.
Schacter, Daniel L. Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the past. New York: Basic, 1996.

Shannon, Claude E, and Warren Weaver. The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1949.


There is much more that ought to be said.


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