Your characters’ memories and perception of time

Richard Restak’s article “Empathy and Other Mysteries” in the Winter 2011 issue of American Scholar contains a variety of insights from neuroscience. He didn’t address fiction writers, but fiction writers should take note.

  • When you say that “Next Wednesday’s staff meeting has been moved forward two days,” some people will believe that the new day is Monday and others will believe it is Friday. Yet if you say it was pushed forward two days, everyone will agree that it is Friday. Why? “Spatial and temporal information are processed differently within the brain,” he says. Spatial information is processed in “the frontal and parietal lobes,” while temporal information “doesn’t really have a clearly defined location in the brain.” It turns out that people who choose Monday have a “time-moving perspective,” in which they “conceive of time as coming toward you,” while people who choose Friday have an “ego-moving perspective,” and “think of yourself as moving forward through time.” People who have just gotten off an airplane will choose Friday, “having experienced themselves during their flight as moving forward from their initial to their final destination.”
  • When we are bored (for example, at a monotonous job, or sick in bed), we perceive time as moving slowly, but when that period ends, it seems that the time raced by. That’s because not much happened and there is little to remember, so it seems that we barely had that time at all. By contrast, when we are entertained, we perceive time as racing by, but when that period ends, it seems that a lot of time passed. That’s because we remember a series of events and we imagine that there must have been a lot of time to fit them all in.
  • Sometimes we are mistaken about the timing of cause and effect. We are used to adjusting for perceptual delays of light and sound, and this system can be fooled so that we perceive the “beginning” of something after it has actually begun. Quoting Eva Hoffman’s Time (2009): “No matter how much we may feel that our thought takes weightless flight, or that its velocity transcends time, mental processes work within biological materiality and have actual duration.”
  • People are easily misled into “remembering” something that didn’t happen. Often all that needs to be done is to tell them a story about themselves or show them an edited photograph of themselves. Later, when the false memory is revealed as fictional, it may nonetheless be difficult for the person to give it up. This “suggests the experience of a kind of double bookkeeping system within the brain whereby it’s possible for us to believe that something is true when intellectually we recognize that it is not.”

memory

How can these insights be used by fiction writers?

  • Think about how you can portray time as coming toward a person or as a person as moving through time. These are subjective states for your character.
  • Think about how rapidly events happen within your character’s timeline and whether they perceive their life as passing slowly or quickly during the events or after the events.
  • Just because you know the sequence of rapid-fire events doesn’t mean your character has to perceive them that way in the moment nor remember them that way later.
  • Just because the truth has been revealed to your character doesn’t mean they can easily give up their false memories and false narratives to the contrary.

All of these insights can apply to your consideration of your readers, too!

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