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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Thanks For The Memory

Posted by R. Ann Siracusa

The Sunday, June 22, question about believing early memories fits right into a topic which should interest all writers and readers. It certainly plays a significant role in developing characters in fiction.


Memories make up the ongoing experience of our lives. Our collective memories provide us with a sense of past, present, and future, and make us who we are. Memory makes fictional characters who they are as well.

Memory is not something you have, like eyes or hair you can touch, but the active process of remembering which involves encoding sensory perceptions, storing them, and recalling information. It is a brain-wide process made up of a group of systems that work together, but each playing a different role, in creating, storing, and recalling memories.

The notion of memory being like a filing cabinet in one location of the brain is no longer the current scientific view of what memory entails.

As you learn and experience the world, and as changes occur at the synapses and dendrite, more connections in your brain are created. The brain organizes and reorganizes itself in response to your experiences, forming memories triggered by the effects of outside input.


Brain can process large amounts of information. How much depends on the source you're consulting, but all sources agree the brain can only register a limited amount of information taken in by our senses of sight, touch, sound, smell, feel (non-tangible such as mood).

We only story sensory information for fractions of a second in our short term memory. According to Richard C. Mohs, PhD, "Short-term memory has a fairly limited capacity; it can hold about seven items for no more than 20 to 30 seconds at a time."

Then the data moves to parts of the frontal cortex responsible for analyzing the sensory inputs and deciding if they're worth remembering. If they are, they're shipped off to the various parts of long term memory. Much of it returns to the sensory cortex areas where the brain originally received it.

If you want to get into the complexity of neurotransmitters diffusing across the space between brain cells, I'd suggest you read the following articles. 

The important thing is that we remember only those details which the brain chooses to store based on what the individual has learned and experiended.

Now, that wasn't too bad, was it?

If our long term memories are essentially who we are and what we believe in, then everything we see and do is filtered through that lens. If three characters (or real people) walk into a room, they don't all see the same thing. Presumably all three will take in the jist of things without the details, let's say they all perceive a large luxurious-looking dining room with a large table set for a dinner party, and soft music playing in the background.

But since our brains only focus a fraction of the details, our filters kick in. We tend to focus on those things that matter or are important to us. Although humans seem to rely more heavily on sight, remember that sounds, vibrations, touch, smells, and a general sense of mood are all processed through the brain in the same way.

The architect ogles the dome above the center of the table, thinking about how that could be constructed and marvels that it resembles the interior of the dome of Saint Peter's Basilica. The wife of a diplomat may focus on the table settings, the flower arrangements, and the way in which this number of people are seated for lunch...and could care less about the dome. A musician might focus only on the music playing.

What your characters notice and perceive is a way of describing for the reader what matters to the character and what interests they have.


Have you ever used that cliché? Most of us have. Unfortunately, what people see and experience is not necessarily an accurate record of reality.

The brain is good at taking in the general jist of things without taking in the details, particularly if you see the item, person, or scene frequently. Again, this applies to all the sensory inputs although, as mentioned, human rely heavily on sight. The brain, however, receives, processes, and stores information that the individual is not aware of at the particular moment.

On the History Chanel production of "Our Bleeped Up Brain," the host challenged people to pick out the picture of an actual penny (which is something we all see all the time) from several false images. See below.

Do you know off hand which is the correct depiction of the US penny? Respond to the blog with your choice of the correct coin...BEFORE you look at a real one 

The point is, the brain recognizes a penny without necessarily registering the details. Have you ever looked at a family member, co-worker or someone else you know well and had the feeling something is different about them...but you don't know what?

Your brain recognizes who the person is from general indicators and fills in the details from memory (the way it has been seeing the person). It may take a while before you realize that she cut her hair or that he shaved off his beard.

So, seeing (smelling, hearing, touching, ) is not always believing. First, because a good story teller can get people to believe almost anything. Second, everything we see is filtered through our own individual values, beliefs, and our perceptions of what is important. Third, because the 
brain fills in the details.

Probably the best illustration of not necessarily believing what you see is an optical illusion.

Our minds can be tricked into seeing things that aren't there or are different than reality. This is the one I like the best. Below are two photographs of body painting by Craig Tracy.

Most of the time, our brains get in right...but not all of the time.


People have flashback, just like characters in books. A flashback, in the more medical sense, it an involuntary memory in which an individual has a sudden powerful re-experiencing of a past event, such as suffers of PTSD. A flashback can be, to some people, like reliving the experience, particularly when it's a traumatic or highly emotional event.

Most of the time, humans simply remember something about another time, place, event, or incident. That isn't like reliving the event or watching a movie, although it can evoke sounds, smells, and emotions.

First, to simply "recall" something, our memory/brain requires a retrieval cue or trigger. You have to see, hear, smell, or receive other stimulus that makes you pull that memory out of its storage places in your brain, partly because you may not have been aware of it when it went into storage. 

Second, remembering is a process of reconstructing what may have happened based on the details your brain chose to store during the experience and, afterward, was able to recall. So those particulars which the brain didn't choose to store won't be there for you.

Third, the retrieval cue itself makes a difference what is recalled. The more specific the cue, the more complete the memory. But the cue can also influence the memory. Asking a person if he saw a car speeding away from a hit and run accident and, then, asking if he remembers the color of the car, may give you one answer. Asking if the person saw a red Ford speeding away from the accident will almost always get an answer that the person saw a red car, even if that wasn't the color.

So, the trigger itself may cause someone to reconstruct the memory incorrectly. I believe that's part of the reason many of us have selective memories.

Flashback and internal thinking are tools of the trade for writers. It's important to remember fictional characters have the same kind brain as we do. When a character think of how she first met her husband, it doesn't just come out of thin air while she's driving to work and worrying 
about the project she's working on unless something triggers the memory.


One more thing about memories. It might be possible to remember something from when you were a year old, but not probable. While infants use their memories to learn, most people can't actually remember events before the age of three. That's because the parts of an infant's brain dealing with memory need about two years to develop fully. Early childhood memories are lost (usually by the age of seven) in a phenomenon known as "childhood amnesia." (Freud)

Many times there are early childhood events which have been described by others so many times that the person believes these are their own real memories. General Patton believed in reincarnation and was convinced he had fought in and personally remembered famous battles in history.

Be sure your characters' memories and motivations from early childhood events are generally possible, unless you can explain why this individual is different than the norm.


Write a comment giving the number of the correct image of the penny. Then go compare that to a real penny and see if you were right.



Rose Anderson said...

What a fantastic post, Ann. Thanks for sharing. :)

Tina Donahue said...

Wow - fascinating blog, Ann - thanks! :)

Melissa Keir said...

What an interesting blog. With the research on brains, I have been able to apply my understanding to my teaching to make it more relevant to the students and help them make those connections.

jean hart stewart said...

Sorry I missed this yesterday due to a doctor's appointment that knock me out for a while. A really fascinating article, but yours always are.

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