Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Memory and Imagination

The "Janus Hypothesis" in psychology is the idea that the acts of remembering and thinking ahead are linked (Dudai and Carruthers, 2005), an idea suggested by Thomas Hobbes in 1651 - "imagination and memory are but one thing". As Greg Nirshberg on his blog writes "Many researchers have noted that memories are simply imaginative reconstructions of past events; that the experience of remembering is shaped as much by a rememberer’s expectations and general knowledge regarding what should have happened, and what could have happened, as what actually did happen". This idea is supported by experiments

  • "the experimental subjects who produced most 'visual and sensory details' in imagining the future were just as prone to retain richer and more vivid episodic memories than low visualisers when instructed to recall the past" (Richardson, p.684).
  • "there is a link between age-related memory deficits and future planning in older adults" (Psychological Science, January 2008)

The boundary between the past and the future isn't the only one that's melting away. Physical and personal boundaries are breaking down too, using some shared processes - "Buckner and other neuroscientists have linked both episodic memory and prospective thinking into a larger set of mental activities involving self-projection into other times, places, and perspectives. ... neuroimaging studies have demonstrated activation in many of the same neural areas when experimental subjects are variously engaged in remembering the past, imagining the future, and considering the perspective of others." (Richardson, p.686).

These mental activities aren't just used on special occasions, they're a core activity - "these neural areas are habitually active, representing the human mind's 'default' tendency when not otherwise engaged. Neuroscientists discovered what Buckner calls the "default network" (Buckner at al. 2008: 2) by accident, when trying to calibrate the brain's rest state as against its level of activation during various tasks in neuroimaging experiments. What they found, to their surprise, was that the brains of their test subjects were no less active before beginning various tasks than while performing them, although the activity showed up in different regions. These regions turned out to be precisely the ones that support episodic memory, prospective thinking, theory-of-mind behaviors, and daydreaming." (Richardson, p.686).

Just as use of metaphor is no longer considered ornamental or poetic but at the heart of language, so imagination and daydreaming aren't just for artists, they may be what the brain naturally does when idle. The "what-if" and "if-I-were-you" speculation is useful in evolutionary and social terms. Predicting people's behaviours (and one's own) is easier if one creates internal models and runs simulations.

Survival depends on predicting the future - people's behaviours and one's own - so it's plausible that through evolution the brain's been optimised for modeling the future rather than accurately recalling the past. Memories are resources to be exploited in whatever way they can.

What implications does all this have for writers? Perhaps one of the clearer examples of how past events seen from various viewpoints are re-combined and augmented in various ways is in Proust's work, where "convoluted sentences stretch the mind's capacity for keeping multiple hypotheses in play while imposing provisional order on a rich set of material", (p.195, "Formative Fictions: Imaginative Literature and the Training of the Capacities", Joshua Landy, Poetics Today 32:4, Winter 2011). Also

  • People may spend quite a lot of their time "fantasising". Some aspects of literary appreciation don't require special training, they're innate skills used in other settings. These aspects may be sophisticated in literary terms - far from the skills required to read realist, single point-of-view texts. Figurative language and flights of fancy may be easy for readers to appreciate as long as if their expectations of texts aren't too restrictive. Writers shouldn't underestimate their readers.
  • Zunshine has suggested that readers create, understand and think about literary characters similarly to the way they deal with other minds. Inversely, knowledge of how people cope with everyday life can inform writing skills. When deciding how to create believable characters, it's worth noting how people get to know strangers, what details they find significant.

The Richardson quotes are from "Defaulting to Fiction: Neuroscience Rediscovers the Romantic Imagination", Alan Richardson, Poetics Today 32:4, Winter 2011


  1. I’ve always been fascinated by human perception, the way it’ll look at a scattering of dots and see a picture contained therein. My memories are dots and my imagination fills in the blanks. It’s a very efficient system as long as you don’t believe everything you think you remember. We see this especially when we remember a task that we have repeated hundreds of times like walking home from school. How many times did I walk along that stretch of road; maybe 5000 times in my life? I can ‘remember’ every inch but what exactly am I remembering? A lot of good points here.

  2. I wonder what tendencies people with an over-active (perhaps uncontrolled) "default network" have. ADD? Distant? "Not quite there" Amusing? Oh, and literary too, I guess.