Tuesday 28 December 2010

Slippery Memories and the Tasks of Fiction, by Charles Fernyhough

The scientific study of autobiographical memory never much appealed to me. As a psychology undergraduate in the late 1980s, I was interested in those details of mind and behaviour that would submit themselves to formal analysis. Memory was too unquantifiable, too unreliable, too subjective, too fuzzed up with messy human detail. I wanted to get scientific about hard numbers (which I thought, at the time, was the only way of being scientific), and all memory seemed to offer me was personal stories.

Now, as someone who divides his time between scientific psychology and fiction-writing, these are precisely the qualities of autobiographical memory that appeal to me most. I am interested in it for some of the same reasons that a novelist might be: because it gives the richest illustration of the precariously complex acts of meaning-making through which human beings make sense of their own existence.

I have written elsewhere about the modern view of memory as a reconstructive process (click here), which sees memories as mental constructions created in the present, according to the demands of the present, rather than as immutable snapshots stored in some library of the mind. What surprises me is that novelists can be resistant to this way of looking at things. In her 2003 memoir, Giving up the Ghost, Hilary Mantel is sniffy about the research in experimental psychology (click here) which has convincingly demonstrated that the vividness of memories bears no relation to their accuracy. In a subsequent article (click here), she responds to the criticism that she has underestimated memory’s power to loosen our grasp on the facts. For me, the most telling note in this compelling piece is her complaint against the reconstructive view: "I don’t know why people want to believe this." The answer, surely, is that scientists don’t simply believe what they want to believe; they believe what their method, and the evidence of their data, show them to be true.

And, in any case, why should a novelist be so concerned about what is objectively true? There are good reasons for clinging to the authenticity of early memories, not least because they can be so foundational for our sense of self. But embracing the constructed nature of memories can be liberating (click here), and I think this is particularly true for fiction writers. When I tell my own creative writing students about the reconstructive view of memory, I encourage them to abandon themselves to its slippery charms. We are all natural born storytellers; we engage in acts of fiction-making every time we recount an event from our pasts.

That is not to say that our memories are fabrications. Far from it: our memories are often very accurate, and only prone to serious distortion under certain conditions. To emphasize the narrative structure of memory is not to deny its potential veracity. Rather, I like to think that it’s a way of better understanding what we are trying to understand. The fact is that the processes of recounting a memory narrative bear important similarities to the processes of telling a fictional story. Psychologists often ask participants to imagine memories for events that could plausibly have happened to them, but didn’t actually. Although research into the phenomenological similarities and differences between these constructions is still ongoing, genuine and made-up memories can look very similar in many ways, and similar patterns of, for example, neurophysiological activation are shown in participants generating real and imagined memories1.

Mantel’s own writing is full of brilliant demonstrations of the power of imagined memories. One of the most striking things about her justly lauded novel Wolf Hall is the way she bestows a richly imagined past upon her protagonist, Thomas Cromwell. A favourite scene for me is one in which Cromwell recalls an erotic encounter in a Cyprus gambling den, which merges, along a link of emotion, into another sexual memory, this time in Europe, with his lover Anselma.

Excuse me just a moment, she had said to him; she prayed in her own language, now coaxing, now almost threatening, and she must have teased from her silver saints some flicker of grace, or perceived some deflection in their glinting rectitude, because she stood up and turned to him, saying, ‘I’m ready now,’ tugging apart the silk ties of her gown so that he could take her breasts in his hands.

Student writers are told to imagine what their characters think, feel and perceive, but they are not reminded often enough to give voice to their characters’ memories. Paying attention to protagonists’ thoughts about their past (and future) is, to my mind, one of the ways in which great writers truly distinguish themselves. Mantel presumably bases her scene on some real biographical details about Cromwell’s life. For the rest, she fills in the gaps with her own magic. If we revert to being psychologists for a moment, fictional memory-making can be understood as the integration of multiple sources of information, orchestrated according to the constraints of the present act of narrativizing. Paying attention to how an expert novelist constructs a memory provides us with a pretty good model of how our own memories work. Accepting the narrative nature of remembering does not destroy its magic. Stories are precious, and that applies equally to our own stories of the past.

Conway, M. A., Pleydell-Pearce, C. W., Whitecross, S. E., & Sharpe, H. (2003). Neurophysiological correlates of memory for experienced and imagined events. Neuropsychologia, 41, 334-340.

Mantel, H. (2009). Wolf Hall. London: Fourth Estate.

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