April 11, 2023

Remembering Timelines (ISSN 2023)

 Last month I was able to present some of my research to the annual meeting of the International Society for the Study of Narrative, in a hybrid conference format (online and in-person). The title of my presentation was "Causality, Location, and Disruption as Accommodations for Remembering Sequences."

In the embedded video below (17:51), you may enjoy my enthusiastic discussion and substantive slideshow. The rest of this blogpost, if you keep scrolling, includes my abstract (285 words) and the "party favor" referred to in my talk, a supplemental handout entitled "Review of Cognitive Psychology on 'Construcive Remembering'" (1268 words, plus notes and references).




     In a previous ISSN presentation, “Causality as Mnemonic Accommodation,” I reviewed cognitive science on memory and event sequence to support three nested claims. First, remembering is constructive (Schacter 1996, 2013). Second, remembering temporal sequences is most successful when recalled information happens to convey temporal implications through natural logic or contextual detail (Friedman 1993). Third, memories encoded as cause and effect imply their own sequence and unity, facilitating efficient mnemonic reconstruction. Thus, causality helps us remember event sequences coherently, whether recalling personal experiences, fictional storylines, or historical emplotments.

     After reviewing the above, I suggest that physical setting can similarly accommodate the mnemonic reconstruction of temporal sequence because movement between two locations necessarily implies prior and subsequent order. Arbitrary developments distinguishable by location can be mentally truncated as episodic material, and thereby sequenced efficiently. Also, itinerary based storylines (e.g., Homer’s Odyssey or The Wizard of Oz) provide an underlying structure within their larger emplotments.

     Finally, I suggest that disruption of any perceived equilibrium creates a mnemonic boundary between time periods “before and after” the disruption. Thus, any contradiction or reversal (e.g., dashed hopes, foiled plans, drastic failure, or tragic irony) creates a powerful mnemonic association between the bygone hopes or expectations and whatever impactful event has destroyed them. Thus, like any trauma, disruption can redefine past and present, encoding the aftermath to evoke what has been lost.

     In summary, it seems that memories which incorporate causality, location, and disruption each imply their own temporal sequence in different ways, and these implications accommodate the remembering of timelines and storylines. By enabling our minds to remember whole sequences with less effort and greater efficiency, these cognitive accommodations may help explain why plot, setting, and conflict (respectively) increase narrative coherence. 

Supplemental Handout

Review of Cognitive Psychology on “Constructive Remembering” [1] 

In researching “Memory for the Time of Past Events,” William Friedman (1993) determined that successful attempts to remember “when” a personal memory belonged—either with respect to some known event, or else with respect to a recognized pattern of time—require only that recalled information must include some contextual detail that conveys temporal implications. That is, recalling memories which contain temporal information enables us to reconstruct a larger event sequence through the active process of working memory, so long as mnemonic content “connects” in some way with a specific point in time, or a known sequence in one’s personal history. For example, recalling where you were on 9/11, or which presidential candidate you first supported, or the first holiday after a loved one’s death; these kinds of details can help you piece together the historical timing of remembered events. In such cases, the mnemonic content itself indicates whether that content belongs before, during, or after some other remembered event or known time pattern. In other words, “temporal content” implies its own sequence.

     The reconstructive aspects of Friedman’s model are functionally aligned with current studies of Reconstructive Memory (or, “constructive remembering”), which began F. C. Bartlett’s Remembering (1932). Narratologists will know Bartlett for his foundational contributions to schema theory but they may not know that Bartlett deliberately gave his subjects confusing and unfamiliar material in order to maximize opportunities for observing schematization (64-5), and that decision produced a few surprising results. Unexpectedly, Bartlett found that his subjects remembered details of the target story “constructively” and that subsequent recollections (for months and years afterward) became increasingly “more connected and coherent” when compared with a subject’s earliest retelling; Bartlett’s subjects also demonstrated substantial instances of (in his terms) invention, condensation, abbreviation, simplification, confusion, rationalization, and other types of “unrealized distortion” (63-94). Because schema theory could explain only some contents of these observed memory distortions, and not the overall process, Bartlett’s experiment raised new questions about the nature of remembering itself.

     Early reception of Bartlett’s study was heavily critical, with psychologists failing to replicate his results and challenging his methodology.[2] Fortunately, Ulrich Neisser’s Cognitive Psychology (1967) revitalized the concept of constructive memory, comparing reassembled memories to reconstructed fossils and arguing that “stored fragments are used as information to support a new construction” (272).[3] Daniel Schacter (1996) sums up Neisser’s view by saying, “only bits and pieces of incoming data are stored in memory. These retained fragments of experience in turn provide a basis for reconstructing a past event” (40). Neisser’s functional claims about the fragmentary nature of recall are confirmed easily enough by common experience of general mnemonic limitations: that recognition is easier than recall, that memories are strengthened by repetition and recency, that memorization typically requires study and rehearsal, and that such learning tends to fade unless periodically reinforced. These basic strengths and weaknesses of memory have been repeatedly affirmed by psychological research (e.g., Kahana, 2012). Further, the claim that memory is reconstructive is now widely affirmed as well (see, e.g., Wagoner 2017b), with even prominent critics of Bartlett like Alan Baddeley affirming that “the reconstructive view” is “associated with normal remembering.”[4]

     Neisser’s functional distinction between simple recall (the retrieval of semantic information and episodic fragments) on the one hand, and constructive remembering (reassembling a whole from whatever bits and pieces are recalled) on the other, can also facilitate discussion of Friedman’s research about temporal content, considering that details of memory which imply temporality are details which arise during “recall,” and the use of that information in reconstruction thereby rounds out the process of “remembering.” In reality, it may be that these distinct tasks often occur simultaneously or interactively, but for mastering the basic concept it can help to think (as I do in my presentation) of “recall” and “reconstruction” as separate stages of a two step process.

     What remains in contention in current psychological research is the extent to which “normal” constructive remembering necessarily results in distortions; on the one hand, extensive research by Daniel Schacter and his associates has demonstrated undeniably that mnemonic distortion is typical, significant, and not infrequently severe.[5] On the other hand, researchers like James Ost & Alan Costall (2002) and Brady Wagoner (2017a, 2017b) have emphasized cases in which mnemonic accuracy does occur, such as the “prodigiously retentive capacity” of Swazi cattle herders for the details of their business, and that particular facets of collaboration can often improve accuracy in remembering.[6] In addition, Wagoner (2017a: 10) points out that construction “does not occur out of nothing” and that “innovation in the present” requires “flexibly engaging with the past.” Even Bartlett himself, in responding to critics, said, “I did not imply that literal retrieval is impossible, but I did imply that it requires special constricting conditions.”[7] Bartlett (93) also confessed, “Detail is outstanding when it fits in with a subject’s pre-formed interests and tendencies” although “it tends to take a progressively earlier place in successive reproductions.”

     In a balanced critique of Schacter, Wagoner (2017a: 203-4) suggests that emphasis on distortions and errata is “not in itself wrong but simply one-sided” and “limits the possibilities for exploring the reasons and nature of change in remembering,” adding, “remembering serves many other functions than creating accurate representations of the past.”[8] Bartlett (16) suggested that literal recall might have been evolutionarily “detrimental” when survival depended on “a continuous play of adaptation between changing response and varying environment.” In other words, we need our memories to be useful.[9] We might underscore this point with an even more basic point, that in order to prove useful, information must be remembered. Thus, in the practical sense, distorted memory is far better than no memory at all. As Bartlett (93-94) concluded, “the reduction of material to a form that can be readily and ‘satisfyingly’ dealt with” is essential because it provides some kind of “specific ground, frame, or setting, without which it will not be persistently remembered” (emphasis mine). Constructive distortions enable us to remember something rather than nothing, and researchers should study these actual phenomena.[10]

     Without question, we must embrace the fact that literal accuracy appears by far the exception rather than the rule, but in my view we must also realize that “distortion” describes a wide variety of aberrations and alterations, ranging from simple abbreviation and summary to confabulation and outright falsification.[11] Strictly speaking, the concept of an “accurate synopsis” is oxymoronic and yet the practice of providing one another with “accurate” synopses remains an essential requirement of personal and professional communication, allowing for legal testimony, medical status updates, personal accident reports, news articles, plot summaries, and even basic directions. Human memory distorts the true past in all of these cases, but many of these distortions do not significantly inhibit critical thinkers from discerning details and aspects of truth in a given recollection (or extemporaneous narration).[12] In fact, some recalled details can be extremely informative, even without a fully reconstructed context, as the following case illustrates profoundly. When professor of psychology Christine Blasey Ford was called before the U.S. Senate in 2018, she testified that certain details of her assault (some thirty years prior) remained “indelible in the hippocampus” while “other details kind of drift.”[13] As reported, Ford’s memory appears to evidence both fragmentation (bits and pieces) and distortion (the special prominence of “laughter” is effectively caricature), and yet rational observers widely declared that her testimony rang strongly of truth rather than falsehood.[14]

     It is within this understanding of memory, with a balanced appreciation of both its limitations and strengths, that I have conducted the research which I present March 3 (5:30-6:45p), on “Causality, Location, and Disruption as Accommodations for Remembering Sequence.”



[1] Although psychological discourse uses these two words together on occasion, the more common categorical labels are “reconstructive memory” (e.g., Baddeley, Eysenck, & Anderson 2009), or “constructive memory” (e.g., McClelland 1995). For my purposes, I hope that “constructive” will evoke similar concepts already familiar to scholars in the humanities, especially scholars for whom “reconstruction” tends to imply critical judgment without autonomous creativity (whereas mnemonic reconstruction may employ both). I also prefer “remembering” as a verb because it centers the key notion that memory is a dynamic process.

[2] Helpful surveys of the psychological literature and research history appear in Waggoner (2017a, 66-73), Ost & Costall (2002), and Schacter (1995, 8-9). In defense of Bartlett’s method with regard to “the non-ergodic character of psychological phenomena,” see Jaan Valsiner’s Foreword in Wagoner (2017a).

[3] Neisser (1967) also applies the paleontologist analogy to visual perception (90, 92) and recognition (107, 109).

[4] Baddeley, Eysenck, & Anderson (2009, 153; cf. 95, 180-1).

[5] The classic study is Schacter (1995); see also Schacter, Addis, and Buckley (2007) and Schacter (2011).

[6] See Ost & Costall (2002): 248ff and Wagoner (2017a, 72-5).

[7] Unpublished paper, cited by Ost & Costall (2002, 243) and Wagoner (2017a, 72). See also Bartlett (1932, 93-4).

[8] For a promising (albeit indirect and partial) response, see Thakral, Barberio, Devitt, & Schacter (2022).

[9] Bartlett (294-296) discusses Maurice Halbwachs (1925), who pointed out that acts of remembering are influenced by present situations; cf. Wagoner (2017a, 118-9). For more on Halbwachs’s project, see LeDonne (2008, 41-50).

[10] That is, as opposed to lamenting unrealized ideals; see Wagoner (2017a, 75-77); see also LeDonne (2008, 50-64).

[11] See, e.g., Schudson (1995), Moscovitch (1995), and Bartlett (1932, 63-94).

[12] I would here cite historical theorists on methodology, but those references would require an additional paper.

[13] “’Indelible in the Hippocampus is the Laughter.’ The Science Behind Christine Blasey Ford’s Testimony,” Time, September 27, 2018.

[14] I myself remember a moment when Ford’s assigned questioner honed in on a precise date for the alleged incident, which prompted a certain South Carolinian to throw a tantrum, after which the questioner had gone.


Baddeley, Alan, Michael W. Eysenck, & Michael C. Anderson. 2009. Memory. East Sussex: Psychology Press.

Bartlett, F. C. 1932. Remembering. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Friedman, William J. 1993. Memory for the Time of Past Events. Psychological Bulletin 113(1), 44–66.

Halbwachs, Maurice. 1925. On Collective Memory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kahana, Michael. 2012. Foundations of Human Memory. Oxford: Oxford, University Press.

LeDonne, Anthony. 2008. The Historiographical Jesus. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.

McClelland, James L. 1995. Constructive Memory and Memory Distortion: A Parallel-Distributed Processing Approach. In Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, ed. Daniel L. Schacter, 69-90. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Moscovitch, Morris. 1995. Confabulation. In Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, ed. Daniel L. Schacter, 226-51. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Neisser, Ulrich. 1967. Cognitive Psychology. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Ost, James & Costall, Alan. 2002. Misremembering Bartlett: A Study in Serial Reproduction. British Journal of Psychology, 93, 243-55.

Schacter, Daniel L. 1995. “Memory Distortion: History and Current Status. In Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, ed. Daniel L. Schacter, 1-46. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Schacter, Daniel L. 1996. Searching for Memory. New York: Basic Books.

Schacter, Daniel L. & Donna Rose Addis. 2007. The Cognitive Neuroscience of Constructive Memory: Remembering the Past and Imagining the Future. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 362, 773-86.

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.

Schudson, Michael. 1995. Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory. In Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, ed. Daniel L. Schacter, 346-64. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Thakral, Preston P., Natasha M. Barberio, Aleea L. Devitt, & Daniel L. Schacter. 2022. Constructive Episodic Retrieval Processes Underlying Memory Distortion Contribute to Creative Thinking and Everyday Problem Solving. Memory & Cognition.

Valsiner, Jaan. 2017. Foreword: Active and Developing Patterns: Remembering into the Future. In Brady Wagoner. The Constructive Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wagoner, Brady. 2017a The Constructive Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wagoner, Brady. 2017b What Makes Memory Constructive? Culture & Psychology. 23(2),



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