July 14, 2023

Another quick run through on Timelines in Memory

Remembering cause and effect implies temporal sequence by the logical pattern of "sufficient" causality. When a given bit of mnemonic content declares that event A *caused* situation B, such a memory implies logically that A occurred prior to B. Given that no "cause" is remembered as such without also recalling an associated effect, this type of constructive remembering requires no further effort by the remembering subject; no further recall and no search for additional information. Conveniently, the implicit sequence to be remembered, both content and structure, is completely entailed by the memory of causality as such.

Remembering a change in location implies temporal sequence by the logical pattern of "necessary" causality. When mnemonic content declares that a person or object has existed in more than one place, such memories imply logically that one memory must belong prior to another. Inconveniently, the remembering subject may need to recall more information, or seek context clues to determine whether time spent in one location was prior or subsequent to time spent in some other location. The sequence implied by the change in locations may not be completely entailed by the content remembered thus far.

Remembering distinct time periods in the past also implies temporal sequence by the same type of "necessary" causality. When one collection of memories includes a number of identical details and a shared contextual grounding, while a different collection of memories embeds a different confluence of details and a different contextual grounding, the two collections logically entail mutually exclusive situations. As with movement between two locations, the logical implication of distinct situations is that one must have occurred prior to another. Again, as above, the remembering subject may need further recall or additional clues in order to sequence these two perceived time periods specifically.

Remembering developmental stages can also imply temporal sequence when distinctly prior stages must have been logically necessary. When a given memory includes content which implies by its own nature some advanced stage of growth or development, such content logically implies that any prerequisite stage must have occurred, at some point, previously. In such cases, whether or not the remembering subject can reconstruct an entire sequence (without additional information) depends heavily on the exact nature of whatever sequence is being implied. Chicken implies previous egg, divorce implies previous marriage, college implies previous high school, and promotion implies previous hiring, but active grandparenting may not imply previous parenting, although simply being a grandparent does imply previous biological procreating.

The disruption of a perceived equilibrium implies temporal sequence by the correlation of two related situations, in which one situation is distinctly identifiable for having replaced another. Such a transition may involve a symbolic ceremony (wedding, graduation, retirement) or incremental advancement (freshman, sophomore, junior, senior) or traumatic loss (injury, break-up, bereavement) or an ironic surprise, the reversal of long-held expectations; however, in all cases the implication of temporal sequence is embedded in the fact that the beginning of one situation is specifically correlated with the seemingly final end of the other. Although such a correlation can later be viewed as tantamount to a causality (e.g., the pandemic "caused" life to change in so many ways) the dynamic which makes this implication "sufficient" is not a causal logic but simply that some non-trivial number of memories can be paired off and identified as corresponding portions of the "before" time and the "after" time, with the later replacing the former in all specific examples. For example, the more details about 12th grade are remembered as specific replacements for corresponding details about 11th grade (e.g., car instead of school bus, job instead of sports, girlfriend instead of nerd buddies, Algebra 2 instead of Geometry), the more likely the later year will be remembered distinctly from (and, ergo, as logically subsequent to) the former.

Finally, temporal sequence may also be inferred whenever a remembering subject believes that a given occurrence existed as one part of a recognized time pattern. Such patterns may be conventional (seasons, event calendars, routines, rituals) or statistically significant (aggregating frequently observed sequences of human behavior in general) or entirely arbitrary (for three decades, if the Celtics won an NBA championship, the Lakers happened to win it the following year), but in all such cases it is merely the subject's familiarity with an occasionally recurring sequence (and not the relative frequency or reliability of any perceived pattern) which provides the advantage in mnemonically reconstructing a particular temporal sequence.


This rough taxonomy, above, represents a new attempt to reframe my body of research in this area by distinguishing strictly according to the functional aspects of specific mnemonic dynamics. In 2014, I attempted to categorize according to five types of cause and effect, and in 2017 I attempted to correlate the various dynamics above along a spectrum of informational redundancy (that is, relative entropy, a la Claude Shannon). 

I do not know which of these efforts (when polished) might hold up best under scrutiny.

What I do know is that I continue feeling the need to ask why my efforts produce such a finite list. How should I decide whether my list is complete? Or whether I have missed something? Or whether I need a new angle on all of it? I have therefore looked for some type of structure or internal consistency which might lend coherence to my theorizing as a whole. 

But now, tonight, I have tried to center the functional dynamics as a way of determining categorical distinctions. I am aware of some significant overlap in the six groupings above. 

Perhaps the most evident distinctions are really between the logic of sufficient causality, the logic of necessary causality, and the illogic of mere repeated correlation. Perhaps there could be some type of logical 'punnet square' which might prove that I have exhausted the possible categories on this topic. I do not know. Alternatively, there may be a way to break down my theory about "narrative redundancy" and re-center cognitive function rather than narrative style; perhaps I was wrong to seek a mathematical spectrum that might bridge the divide between perfectly emplotted narrative order and chronicled randomness. Perhaps I was not entirely off base but I cannot see how to improve it or what to change now. Perhaps time will tell.


What I do know, increasingly, is that I need to do a better job of distinguishing between demonstrable patterns of temporal implication and constructive remembering, on the one hand, and my tentative reflections about what this all means and how we might make it useful, on the other.

Just this week, I gave up on the idea that what I can demonstrate (on the one hand) can be written up in a way that justifies my tentative reflections about meaning and applications (on the other hand).

I will, henceforth, attempt to catalog my observations as such, for what they are worth.

I will try to do a better job of designating my own tentative reflections as such, as well.

In other words, I will hopefully do a better job of recognizing my own limits, while still leaving something to build on for future posterity.


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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton