Memories, personality, and stories

Just reading an article in MIT Technology Review about Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist studying memory malleability. Reminds me of Elzabeth Loftus, who got into a lot of hot water (including death threats!) by demonstrating experimentally that the concept of “repressed memory” is not fact-based, and how false memories can be created. [Of course, to a lot of people, having something demonstrated experimentally makes it Highly Suspicious, whereas things like crystal healing, “toxin” cleansing, or any religious story (take your pick), why, those just have to be true… how could they not? *sigh*]

The Schiller article says:

…memory is best preserved in the form of a story that collects, distills, and fixes both the physical and the emotional details of an event. “The only way to freeze a memory,” she says, “is to put it in a story.”

Creating a story, then, is a form mnemonic. Like creating a rhyme, or a song, about an event helps one remember it and transmit it to others – meme-ifies it. Collecting events, themselves with no meaning, into a narrative; giving them a structure with a beginning/middle/end; creates an object in idea-space, just as a solid object lives in our physical spacetime. And by remembering or telling the story, we are doing the equivalent of walking around it and studying it, just like we’d do to a sculpture in a museum.

At work, in the Technical Documentation department at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we are studying techniques to make it easier for writers of proposals to tell their story more effectively. A tricky business! These writers may or may not have any innate talent at storytelling or even writing. But a better story will help whoever reviews their proposal to remember it, and will help the proposal stand out from the pile of competitors. So we are attempting to craft a process that a writing team can refer to which will yield a proposal with a “central character,” a “goal,” a “conflict,” and a “resolution.”

Our challenge is even more daunting because it’s rarely an individual who writes these, but a team. A member of the team may be a specialist with a narrow, but indispensable, technical expertise. Their section may be highly abstruse, technical, even numerical. How do we help that team member to carry forward the elements of the story? They have a lot of work already, and many requirements to fulfill for their section to be compliant with NASA’s demands. We don’t want to be seen as burdening them with even more requirements, and mushy humanistic ones at that.

Schiller and Loftus’s research give us data to support the legal truism that “whoever tells the best story wins.” They don’t only win in the courtroom, they win competing for funds, and they also win in our own minds, as we try to corral our memories into stories with meaning.