Thursday, February 28, 2008

Memory Is Narrative

The statement at the end of that blog from a few days ago was meant to be provocative, though not entirely so. For, depending on how we understand by 'memory', it could be said to be entirely appropriate.

What I was not talking about was the kind of 'memory' involved in basic cognitive acts, such as, say identifying objects one comes across in the course of one's life, like people, chairs or cars, to name but three of a gazillion. These acts of cognition are usually performed automatically, though of course in some cases we may have to try, because we may not be able to be sure. Like is this meant to be a duck or a rabbit?

The same goes for most instances of what you might broadly call 'pattern recognition' processes, which obviously somehow involve some form of pre-existing 'memory', whatever kind of memory that may be. But when we talk about this kind of identification we wouldn't really say, "oh, I remember that this is a duck". It's more like "I recognize that this is a duck". Or a rabbit. Or both. Or flipping from being one to the other. Clearly not something that common, or even academic, parlance would label a 'memory' event.

But suppose you were to say "I remember that this is a duckrabbit" then this changes the rules; something has been added to the mere 'identification', because the duckrabbit isn't an 'ordinary' object--like a rabbit or a duck--but something that somehow rises above the common ruck of ordinariness. You would probably have come across it in the context of something having to do with Wittgenstein, which would give it some kind of special status because of the context. Cognitive scientists refer to the contextual nature of memory as 'associative', meaning that memories always exist in a framework which supports them and links them to other memories. In the case of "I remember that this is a duckrabbit" the object in the focus of memory is embedded in the actual "I remember that this is a duckrabbit" itself.

(The same, it goes without saying, is true in the case of either a duck or a rabbit, or any other object of thought for that matter. You just might have a harder time to trace the myriad contexts for 'rabbit' or 'duck' back to all their sources.

A curious configuration of context and content, if you will. 'Associative memory', or so I would like to suggest, actually has the nature of 'narrative'. By that I mean that when you start with something like "I remember that/when..." you almost invariably don't end up describing something static but of some series of events or process, in the context of which certain items you're remembering appeared. For example, suppose you saw a famous painting in some museum and later you're recalling the painting. And then it's like "I remember when we were at the Louvre and we saw..."

Rachael's memories: about her mother, the episode with her brother, the spiderlings who ate the spider... Not about what they were, but what happened.

Yeah I know, it's just a movie--but try and trace your own ways of recalling things, just for the heck of it, and see what you come up with. See if you can actually find an instance of 'recall' that's not held together with other things through 'events' and 'process'; in other words, with a form of narrative--which, I maintain, is the cognitive fabric, or, if you will, the matrix or substrate for what is known as 'associative memory'.

It's also much more than that, because narrative also provides a wider embedding context, a.k.a. 'meaning'.

I wonder if maybe here we find the real reason why we tell stories, and why we're so pervasively addicted to them. It isn't something that requires endless tomes to explain, but quite possibly something much less complicated and much, much more basic.

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