Posted in fiction

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!

Posted in fiction

Can fiction writers benefit from falsificationism?

In “The Falsification Mindset: How to Change Your Own Mind,” Mike Sturm explains why a belief system or theory should state “what specific evidence would prove it wrong.” For one thing, as proposed by Karl Popper, the theory isn’t scientific unless you do this. It’s also a useful exercise for making good life choices, even if you’re not a scientist. Contemplating the conditions under which you’d admit your own wrongness, Sturm writes, makes you explicitly state what you believe, realize that you could be mistaken, and commit to changing your mind if you’re proven wrong. This can spare you from making big mistakes.

I wonder how writers might use this insight in fiction. A fictional story as a whole, of course, is false. Still, the details of the story need to hang together consistently, and the insertion of certain details can spoil the story by introducing inconsistencies into its narrative. Other details may interfere with the insight or moral that the writer is trying to convey. Still other details may make the story seem implausible, absurdist, or nonsensical.

It may be wise for a novelist to divine ahead of time at least some of the words that simply will not work out within their tale. I don’t know what this process would be called. “Falsificationism” isn’t right, because the wrong details don’t falsify the fiction; the fiction is already false. “Parasitism” may be closer, because a wrong detail is like an invading organism that drains energy from the story. The writer or any given reader may be unaware of the parasite. Regardless of whether anyone notices it consciously, the parasite can injure or even kill the story. It may be a valuable exercise, therefore, for a writer to list the potential parasites that could threaten their story.

parasite_spider

Image: Live Tetragnatha montana parasitized by Acrodactyla quadrisculpta larva. Digitally altered, based on a photo that appeared in Biodiversity Data Journal in 2013 and is available on Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons 3.0 license).

Posted in avoidance, fiction, nonfiction

Spotlight: More books on Alzheimer’s Disease

AlzAuthors features the work of over 160 authors writing about Alzheimer’s, including books of non-fiction and fiction. Here’s five more books!


 

The Memory Keeper by Jessica Bryan

Jessica Bryan is a caregiver and author of four books. In this book, she describes coping with her mother’s advanced Alzheimer’s Disease as her mother’s memories disappear in the haze of dementia. What is raw and sad is also humorous and candid. She shares how she overcomes anger and frustration, and her words act as suggestions for others undergoing the same ordeal. She writes, “I hold the memories of this beautiful woman who is disappearing thought by thought, sentence by sentence and memory by memory. I want to remember the moments we have left, the good and the bad times, the laughter and the tears. I am the memory keeper.”


 

Somebody Stole My Iron: A Family Memoir of Dementia by Vicki Tapia

Faced with caring for both parents after their dual diagnosis, author Vicki Tapia watched helplessly as her mom and dad both descended into the rabbit hole of dementia/Alzheimer’s disease. Her memoir, Somebody Stole My Iron, weaves their family’s struggle into an engaging story, filled with humor and pathos. The narrative offers an honest and heartfelt glimpse into the ups and downs of life with memory loss and provides readers useful information and tips for coping. “I wrote my story to offer hope to others whose lives have been intimately affected by this dreadful disease,” she explains, “to reassure them that they’re not alone.”


 

Alzheimer’s Daughter by Jean Lee

Both of Jean Lee’s parents were diagnosed on the same day. Published in 2015, this memoir has over a hundred reviews on Amazon and was voted #5 in the best selling books about Alzheimer’s by Book Authority.


 

A Turbulent Mind: A Poetry Collection of a Mother’s Journey with Alzheimer’s by Jay Artale

This poetic memoir is about Jay Artale’s mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s. It’s a collection of 39 poems with a peppering of wry humor to destigmatize the impact of dementia.


 

My Two Elaines: Learning, Coping, and Surviving as an Alzheimer’s Caregiver by Martin J. Schreiber and Cathy Breitenbucher

Former governor of Wisconsin Marty Schreiber has seen his beloved wife, Elaine, gradually transform from the woman who gracefully entertained in the Executive Residence to one who no longer recognizes him as her husband. In My Two Elaines: Learning, Coping, and Surviving as an Alzheimer’s Caregiver, Marty candidly counsels those taking on this caregiving role. With patience, adaptability, and even a sense of humor, Marty shows how love continues for his Second Elaine. My Two Elaines was named a Best Caregiving Book of both 2017 and 2018 by Caring.com. Marty has also reached thousands of Alzheimer’s caregivers at more than 300 presentations around the country since November 2016.

 


 

Image at top: Based on a 2012 photograph of an elder Selkup woman in Krasnoselkup, Yamal. Photograph by Aleksandr Popov. Wikimedia Commons.

Posted in fiction, nonfiction

Spotlight: Books about Alzheimer’s Disease

AlzAuthors features the work of over 160 authors writing about Alzheimer’s, including books of non-fiction and fiction.

Here’s just three of them! These three books are all available in both paperback and Kindle eBook editions. If you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, you can read the eBook for free.


 

Motherhood: Lost and Found by Ann Campanella

This memoir, the author explains to me, “tells the story of my mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s when I was in my early 30s and struggling through a series of miscarriages as I was trying to become a mom myself. I live on a horse farm, so horses are the backdrop of the story. My thoroughbred Crimson, a grandson of Secretariat, helped carry me through this difficult period of my life. I was honored to have my memoir named ‘One of the best Alzheimer’s memoirs of All Time’ by Book Authority.”


 

Finding Joy In Alzheimer’s: New Hope for Caregivers by Marie Marley, PhD and Daniel C. Potts, MD, with a foreword by Maria Shriver

The authors explain the importance of overcoming denial, accepting difficult situations, and finding hope, and they express their opinion about the role of spirituality. They provide tips for interacting with people with Alzheimer’s.


 

Forgotten Secrets (the first volume in the Singing River series) by Robin Perini

This fictional thriller features a crime witnessed by a person with Alzheimer’s.


 

Image at top: Based on a photograph c. 1900 of an elderly couple in Hampton, Virginia. Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection (Library of Congress). Wikimedia Commons.

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Writing the negative space

Holocaust Memorial. Artist: Andy DeComyn.

When we set out to draw an object, we usually imagine the object in the foreground of the picture, draw its outline, and fill it in. This is a representation of “positive space.” It is also possible to represent an object in “negative space” by drawing everything that is not it. This is less frequently done, so it often surprises us.

This can happen in verbal descriptions, too. Psychotherapy clients often talk about everything except what’s most important to them. The absence of the important theme may become noticeable to the listener, who is then able to fill in the gaps.

Fiction can be written in negative space, perhaps. But whether you write in positive or negative space, you still need to know what you are trying to communicate. If you don’t know what your image, idea, or message is, you can’t identify “everything that isn’t it.”

Photo: Holocaust Memorial at Church Green, near Redditch, Worcestershire, Great Britain. Artist: Andy DeComyn. Photographer: P L Chadwick. Creative Commons license.