Chronology in Memory

I presented a ten minute introduction to this research for the 2021 ISSN conference.

I presented a seventeen minute follow-up presentation at the 2023 ISSN conference.

How do readers/audiences remember chronology? How do we remember the sequence of a storyline, after receiving that story in narrative form? How do we remember historical time while reading stories set in the past? What are the cognitive tools that we use while blending a foregrounded storyline together with a historical background, chronologically? What happens if we learn the context of the First Century as a collection of interrelated stories, and then re-read the New Testament's narratives and epistles? How does Time work in our Memory when thinking about events of the past?

Because remembering is constructive, and depends on cognitive efficiency, a Mnemonic Timeline is put together from memories that happen to display temporal implications. When information contained in a memory offers context clues with regard to some prior or subsequent memory, that mnemonic content thus becomes self-sequencing. When content structures itself, constructive remembering (of a timeline) can occur with less informational cost, without extra cognitive processing. Furthermore, the most common types of self-sequencing temporal information happen to reflect the literary conventions of Plot (causality), Character (development), Setting (movement), and Conflict (disruption). Perhaps these four categories are not "elements of literature" at all, but the roots of remembering time, and thus the cognitive basis of narrativity itself.

Here is my thesis in one sentence: Story is what memory makes from paying attention to change.

There may be many practical applications we can build from this theoretical research; see also the final slide of my 2023 presentation.

Enjoy reading.


The first two links, at top, represent the most succinct account of my thinking in this area, to date (April, 2023).

The links below preserve my earliest exploration of these basic ideas through blogging, beginning in 2014. My thinking shifted helpfully when I discovered William Friedman, somewhere around January of 2015. The total volume of blogging linked below amounts to approximately 81,000 words.


SERIES ONE (PLOT): Memory and Narrative, focuses on the mnemonic efficiencies of Plot, giving special attention to causality, contingency, and the beneficial distortion of "post hoc, ergo propter hoc".

Memory & Narrative 1 (June, 2014): A Story is a coping strategy to deal with the fact that we'd like to remember the past but there's just too darn much of it; M&N 2 (June, 2014): What if human memory's extensive need for efficiency is primarily responsible for the nature of how we construct Stories; M&N 3 (July, 2014): Re-examining E.M. Forster's famous remarks on causality according to sequential information and mnemonic efficiency; M&N 4 (July, 2014): A surprising connection (in audience memory) between the "chronicle" of history and the major "plot points" of authorial narrativizations; M&N 5 (July, 2014): Complex historical causes versus simplified narrative causality; the mnemonic advantages of inflating causality; M&N 6 (August, 2014): Simplicity versus complexity in representing the past; contingency as the bedrock of remembering change; M&N 7 (October, 2014): A preview of the rest of my thinking on engineering efficiently rememberable storytelling - "post hoc", the "great man" theory, and ceremonial transitions.

Five Variations of the "post hoc" Fallacy (September, 2014): Differentiating the mnemonic advantages of narrative causality, according to a five part taxonomy; (1) Assumed Causality (pure superstition), (2) Inflated Causality (isolating a single cause among many), (3) Bloom as Root (mistaking an intermediate effect as the original cause), (4) Multiple Effectuality (aggrandizing a cause by its many "effects"), and (5) Widespread Contingency (extremely broad cases of Multiple Effectuality)


SERIES TWO (CHARACTER): Heroic History, works through the challenges of understanding why and how rememberable stories can be more biographical in terms of structure, and less like a classical plot.

Heroic History 1 (October, 2014): mnemonic efficiencies of an infamous narrative distortion; HH 2 (October, 2014): Why is the aggrandizing of character such a helpful mnemonic for storytellers?; HH 3 (November, 2014): mnemonic advantages of a narrative distortion: aggrandizing individual lives; HH 4 (December, 2014): on Aristotle's bias towards "unified plots" and his rejection of biography; HH 5 (December, 2014): how biographical story structure both defies and aligns with Aristotle's ideas about "plot structure"... and how the rememberability of one structure compares with the other; HH 6 (February, 2015) the unique story-discourse dynamic in biographical narratives and the mnemonic efficiencies of remembering life stories; HH Recap (March, 2015) - a helpful synopsis of this series so far (and TaCSoRB, below); HH 7 (May, 2015) - a placeholder for Remembering Life Stories

Heroic History was originally planned to conclude with three more posts, after finishing RLS, below.

Towards a Cognitive Science of Remembering Biographies   
TaCSoRB, (1 of 2) (March, 2015): autobiographical memory VS remembering biographies; cognitive psychology VS narratology; TaCSoRB (2 of 2) (March, 2015): remembering time, as a way of remembering (lengthy & elaborate) storylines

Remembering Life Stories

Remembering Life Stories, 1 - Character Development (Introduction) (May, 2015)
Remembering Life Stories, 2 - Temporal Content (June, 2015)
Remembering Life Stories, 3 - Biographical Temporality (July, 2015)
Remembering Life Stories, 4 - Familiar Serial Patterns (April, 2016)
Remembering Life Stories, 5 - Biographical Expertise (April, 2016)
Remembering Life Stories, 6 - Narrative Redundancy (May, 2016)
Remembering Life Stories, 7 - Biographical Redundancy (April, 2017)
Remembering Life Stories, 8Teleological Reconstruction (August, 2017)

***Progress was officially suspended when I began formal graduate studies and began writing a Master's Thesis about contextualizing narrativity in Matthew 2:22***

Planned but not posted:
Remembering Life Stories, 9 - Story Compression (Modeling Reconstructive Algorithms)
Remembering Life Stories, 10 - Summary & Conclusion


SERIES THREE (SETTING): Representing Transitions, is going to look at the temporal implications of physical movement, the paradox of continuous change, and the dynamic between "figure" and "ground" when delimiting "events" (i.e., the cognitive compression of dynamic mental images... a.k.a., how our brains remember movement). The best way to think about this compression is to consider graphic representations of action in sculpture, photography, painting, and drawing. In producing this iconic photo of a bullet passing through an apple, the camera captured multiple frames but the artist chose the one frame which maximized both the implication of temporal priority and also the implication of temporal subsequence. See also Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics for the representation of action (e.g., here and here). This kind of artistic efficiency accommodates our cognitive limitations, and simulates the brain's natural compression of continuous change into representative images which imply sequence -- still image which functions like a GIF. All of this is determined by our cognitive need for informational efficiency.

SERIES FOUR (CONFLICT): Memory & Irony, will examine the disruption of expectations. Recalling one set of events as a traumatic negation of prior projections (e.g., crushed hopes, failed plans) implies a temporal distinction between two perceived 'equilibria' (i.e., "time periods"). Series Four will also conclude by demonstrating how status quo and disruption bring the ultimate coherence to a story (optimizing mnemonic compression of a storyline); in short, status quo and disruption takes the figure/ground dynamic that our brains use for compressing visual action into a single "event" (discussed above, in Series Three) and uses that same dynamic for compressing an entire sequence of events.

In sum, the classic elements of storytelling were discovered precisely because they provide natural mnemonic advantages which optimize narrative coherence despite the cognitive limitations of human remembering. That is, good stories make it easier to remember a sequence of events. 

Or, more simply (as I said near the top), Story is what memory makes from paying attention to change.

In March of 2020 I posted a longer and more detailed introduction to the ideas which I had originally envisioned as "Series Four." That post is called Time in Memory, Series IV (in nuce)


You can also read my earliest attempts (in October & November of 2014) to sum up the overall thesis in less than 500 words.

Progress will continue as time and resources allow.

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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."

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