Memory is Narrative; Narrative is Memory

Memory is Narrative

Memory is mostly narrative. I say mostly because there are rare memories that are not, such as olfactory memories: you smell something, and it suddenly takes you back to . . . what? In these memories, you do not know how old you were, where you were, who you were with or what you were doing. All you know is that you recognize the smell. If you can pinpoint it, if you can pull the event into the conscious mind—in other words, encode it in language—the sensory memory becomes narrative: “I was walking to elementary school with my younger sister Cammy.”

This is not the kind of story we normally share, however, unless we see something unusual in the event. A narrative of mundane events, such as walking to school or washing the dishes, would not tell us anything new. If the event is familiar, something we already know, we don’t need to encode it, remember it, or tell somebody else about it.


Station 1, 2012, 48”x 32” acrylic gouache on panel, Tom McGlynn

The narrative demand for something unusual keeps us wanting more, even while existing narratives are still valid and effective. Fashions once developed across centuries; now we expect each decade to distinguish itself in terms of music, style, and idea. In spite of the bewildering range of content available in every field, we require innovation. Filmmakers, musicians, writers, scholars and scientists are all trying to come up with something original. Nothing wrong with that. The madness is that we think that only new ideas are good ideas.

We may also have some touch, taste and aural memories that are non-narrative, but I doubt that visual memory can ever be non-narrative. We certainly flash on images that seem disconnected, but there is usually some narrative or linguistic connection, although we may not know consciously what it is. Such images are not random. Psychologists hunt for these connections, using conscious storytelling to interpret the subconscious text.

Most visual memories are deliberately narrative. When I say to myself or to those around me, “You must remember this,” I am emphasizing the unusualness of the moment, a moment of beauty or majesty, of comedy or fear. These days our visual memories are normally of photos. We remember the photographic representation, instead of the events the pictures chronicle.

Photos were once thought to capture real moments in the real world, but now we know that taking a photo is always a subjective process. Think about vacation photos (an admittedly easy target). Why does everyone have the same pictures of Thailand? Because everyone is trying to take the same picture: the picture that says, “I was here,” “It was mysterious,” “We had a good time,” or even “I am a clever, artistic photographer who does not take the typical picture.” The framing of a picture—what you include and exclude—is highly narrative. Do you take pictures of the dirt? The garbage? The tourists? Do you capture the signs with names of the temples so you will know later what you are looking at or do you cut them out to make the picture seem more natural?

Natural! I mean, really! What is natural about taking pictures of a place crowded with tourists, garbage and signs without any of these things in the photographs?

The verbal creation of narrative memory begins almost as events are occurring. In a Thai temple, someone (let’s say Omar) starts talking about how hot it is and how he had no idea that April was the hottest month. Wouldn’t a beer and some shade be nice? At a covered, outdoor bar, he shakes his head and says, “It is so hot! We will have to tell Mark and Jason not to come here in April.” Then comes the proprietress into the picture, the character who will really make the moment memorable.

Turns out the proprietress was a transsexual, very pretty and talkative. Well, as she spoke, she said that the young boy serving us drinks was her son, then told us that she stole him as a baby from the hospital! She just picked out the prettiest baby and ran. I swear, its true!

Back home, when people ask about the trip, we say, “Hot, hot, hot. Don’t go in April, but the temples were beautiful, the food was delicious and the beaches were great.” Such statements give social value to experience, telling others if and when they should go and what they should do there.

And then comes the good part, the unusual story: “Oh my God! One day we were visiting some temples and it was just too hot, so we went to an open-air bar to get a beer. Turns out the proprietress was a transsexual, very pretty and talkative. Well, as she spoke, she said that the young boy serving us drinks was her son, then told us that she stole him as a baby from the hospital! She just picked out the prettiest baby and ran. I swear, its true! Well, she may have been making up a story—she exaggerated a lot—but, wow, what a story!”11

This tale and a handful of others are the narratives we will tell again and again about our trip, exaggerating and simplifying some events while eliminating many others, until the memory becomes a cartoon of the trip, which is why someone can ask years later, “Do you remember . . . ?” And nope, nothing. Zilch. If you did not construct your narratives together and occasionally rehearse them, your memories will be different.

Most travellers actually plan vacations around the photographs and memories they want to create. Imagine how different your next trip would be if you knew that you would not be able to remember anything. Would you visit whorehouses instead of temples? Or would you just stay in bed? People go on vacations for the pictures and stories; we live our lives for the narratives that we will produce, just as Don Quixote performs his acts of chivalry for the chroniclers that will record his actions.

Cervantes’ novel demonstrates how narrative memory is produced, how events are turned into meaningful accounts. After the misadventure with the windmills, Sancho says, “God save me . . . did not I warn you to have a care of what you did, for that they were nothing but windmills; and nobody could mistake them, but one that had the like in his head?” (Cervantes 60). Here Sancho is framing the event as a terrible mistake, a narrative of value saying, “Don’t do that again!” He even hits upon the correct explanation for Don Quixote’s illusions: “nobody could mistake them, but one who had the like in his head.” Because Don Quixote had the image of giants in his head, he saw them in the world around him.

The creation of memory is nearly always social, however, and Don Quixote is able to put his own spin on the narrative:

Peace, friend Sancho . . . for matters of war are, of all others, most subject to continual mutations. Now I verily believe, and it is most certainly so, that the sage Friston who stole away my chamber and books, has metamorphosed these giants into windmills, on purpose to deprive me of the glory of vanquishing them, so great is the enmity he bears me . . . (Cervantes 60)

In spite of Don Quixote’s own doubts, indicated by the words “verily believe” and “it is most certainly so,” Don Quixote accepts his own explanation even as he is producing it. He convinces himself.

As knight and squire ride away, Don Quixote recounts many parallel adventures from chivalric romance, telling Sancho, “you shall deem yourself most fortunate in meriting to behold them; and to be an eye-witness of things which can scarcely be believed” (Cervantes 60). It doesn’t matter that Sancho was not actually an eyewitness to the battle with the giants (he saw windmills); he answers, “God’s will be done. I believe all just as you say” (Cervantes 61). And the narrative of the battle becomes a shared one.

Unfortunately, encoding a memory in words does not help us remember more accurately. Instead the verbalization distorts memory, as demonstrated in a series of six experiments by psychologists Jonathan W. Schooler and T. Y. Engstler-Schooler, described in Verbal Overshadowing of Visual Memories: Some Things are Better Left Unsaid” (1990). Their studies demonstrate that describing something impairs, rather than improves recognition. In the first experiment, subjects watched a videotape of a bank robbery. One group later wrote a detailed description of the robber; the others did not. All were then asked to identify the thief from a lineup of eight photos. Those who had written a description picked the person out with only 38% accuracy, while those who had not described him identified the thief with 64% accuracy, nearly double. The description process—standard police procedure—significantly hampered recognition.

A verbal overshadowing effect has been noted in other studies when subjects had to verbalize hard-to-describe stimuli like colors, wine, voices, abstract figures (Meissner and Memon 871) and physical attractiveness (Talbot, et al.). The world, you see, does not fit easily into words. The stories we tell do not capture reality; they warp it. Narrative, then, is revision: both an alteration and a new vision of events.

Ronald B. Richardson

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