March 26, 2020

Time in Memory, Series IV (in nuce)

Causality is not some special rule of narration. Causality is merely a popular convenience. A story is best defined as a coherence of dynamics, and no storytelling device settles that paradox so efficiently as a unifying chain of purpose, drive, and seemingly inevitable consequence. However, biography offers a strong degree of coherence despite encompassing radically arbitrary dynamics, and a travelogue allows geographic contingency to unify random episodic occurrences. Examining all this, we discover that narrative coherence is rooted in plot, character, setting, or some combination of all three.

These are the deep cognitive tools of mnemonic chronology, the informational leverage which enables our minds to compress data, elevating raw chronicles into focalized narratives. This is what I set out (tentatively) to define, years ago, in my blog series on Time in Memory.

There is a fourth memory tool which does the same job most powerfully. Conflict also lends coherence to story material (i.e., temporal representations), most famously as a grand framework surrounding the rest of the plot (or what passes for plot, a linear storyline of whatever middling coherence).

Consider the classic paradigm of great literature.

The introduced status quo represents a compression of long-term expectations based on standard human experience in a given locality. This is not a true "normal" but the perception of what is most common. The mnemonic indellibility comes from "redundancies" of lived experience, types and sets of encounters and observations that happen so frequently they define "standard" simply by cognitive default. The culturally shared worldview is derived from that which nobody could ever forget. The new, different, exceptional, and surprisingly interjected phenomena are actually the vast bulk of what truly occurs during daily existence... bits of noise cast aside as our brains craft a signal... because seeking informational coherence is a coping mechanism for psychological stability. In truth, the entire chaotic mass of this constantly churning reality--what we always are actually experiencing--is too vast a wall of data for human intellects to process, let alone grasp, let alone study, let alone understand. Our brightest minds spend decades actively chunking whole fields of study but the normal human experience is by far at the other extreme (and, honestly, most of us live somewhere near the middle).

Chaos is solid, but consciousness is linear.

Disruptions are the true normal but so is forgetting.

As memory theorists and cognitive scientists teach us, remembering is unusual. Forgetting is by far the default. Last year you interacted thousands of times with people who wore different clothes, used different words, engaged in different activities, moving in different places, and seeing you at different times and occasions. Of all this, you most often remember those peoples names and faces, the consistent aspects of those collected encounters. You might have one or two favorite people whose changing details you might collect in your mind but that is only because you focus intently on those special persons. Aside from them, you've forgotten most things you observed about everyone else. This is what I mean by the "true normal" of constant disruptions. These countless changes are each small and insignificant. Collectively, by far, they account for the vast bulk of what you actually perceive in the world, in a moment by moment accounting.

Our local world as we know it, as we remember it (which is to say, our perceived "normal") is based on a much smaller set of data, our few and precious familiar consistencies, from which we form this illusion of "status quo" (so to speak).

The bulk of phenomena are random bits of chaos (what cannot be compressed by our minds into the sense of a signal amidst all the noise) and those bits of chaos are, technically, disruptions. They are usually minor disruptions, immediately forgotten. Again, they are usually minor and they are usually forgotten.

That is, unless they are impactful.

Sometimes the coherent remembering of related dynamics is rooted in our brains by an impactful disruption. The great dramatic disruption or "conflict" which so often introduces the famous plots of classic literature is a stereotyped (schematized) construction, crafted from centuries of natural experience of hearing and telling stories of personal experience which happened to prove memorable and satisfying. The great paradox in the nature of what story is--a set of changes we somehow remember as one unit--can be most efficiently enabled by the grand framework of conflict.

The impactful disruption of expectations creates a NEW normal, establishing new patterns of familiarity which are tinged with the old world, as it was previously perceived and/or conceived. This new set of repeated experiences reminds you of the old world, but precisely because it is no longer that world.

That new chain restaurant you drive past every day keeps reminding you of the old neighborhood diner (which it replaced). Your new boss at work does a few things so differently than your old boss that his new differentness keeps reminding you of the gone away sameness. Being stuck in your home during a pandemic makes you think vividly about how much you miss all the daily routines you so recently took quite for granted. We could go on and on: a disappointing stepparent, the destruction after an earthquake, the changes to air travel which always make me remember a number of ways in which airports were different before September of 2001.

We could also ask these questions: Does washing your car make it rain, or does rain after a car wash become more memorable, almost painfully memorable, somehow? Does staking a prediction guarantee that you'll be proven wrong, or does a pattern of being proved wrong make you wary of staking predictions? Does hoping for something mean it's not going to happen, or does hoping for something remind you of times when your expectations were dashed by the negating eventuality?

As it happens, these examples illustrate more than my point. They illustrate two major principles of truth. First, they illustrate the dictum (in memory theory) that present needs and present experiences are what most often drive acts of repeated remembering. Second, they illustrate Aristotle's prescription that tragedy should revolve around a dramatic reversal. What I intend to argue (in future work, someday) is that this is no mere coincidence. Aristotle's insight was not merely based on observation of professional writers in ancient Greece, and it was not merely based on what works well for audience memory. The concept of the dramatic reversal was also based on an optimized experience of the way our human remembering sometimes achieves peak performance... particularly in regards to its capacity for remembering a large set of dynamic changes with impressive degrees of coherence.

When what is present reminds you of what is absent... When what you have reminds you of what has been lost... When your new status quo reminds you in this intensively negative way about your old status quo... When the whole world as it is reminds you of how everything changed...

When some newly introduced conflict--the original disruption, the underlying causality that eventually unmade all your previously normalized expectations--when that seems like the natural inflection point for talking about how you remember the world being unmade...

All of this... can be profoundly described in terms of both irony and trauma.

The dramatic reversal is not merely a literary device. It happens to describe a deeply human and widely common experience. The impactful disruption of expectations is a natural cognitive anchor for linking narrative content together, mnemonically. It just so happens that talented writers spent centuries observing, imitating, and modifying this experience until they had fashioned an artistic device. However, in both cases, in both art and life, this ironic-traumatic dynamic creates a powerful efficiency for remembering a large set of dynamics coherently.

Conflict (the disruption of expectations) is the fourth* element of Mnemonic Temporality, the fourth* root of what makes Narrative work, perhaps even the cognitive basis of narrativity itself.

There is far more to unpack about all this. I hope I get around to it someday.


*I have previously written about three similar mnemonic advantages for remembering stories: Causality (Plot), Biography (Character), and Transitions (Setting). Okay, I haven't written much (yet) about Transitions, but I hope to. At any rate, the index page for all such posts on these topics is here.

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