I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

Memories from Noise

Back in college, I had a friend named Ian Feinberg who was gifted with the natural instincts of a prop comic. One bit I remember vividly is that our cafeteria used to have these little "breadsticks" on the salad bar, that were really crackers the size and shape of a a Slim Jim, with rounded ends like a cigar, and Ian one day popped one of these into his mouth, grabbed a friends lighter, then lit it and smoked it. He got a pretty good amount of really awful smelling smoke out of it, if I recall correctly.

But, just this week, I swapped an email with Ian where I made reference to this gag and he wrote back confused by what I was talking about. He just didn't remember doing it.

I have another friend from college named Greg Hungerford who's been my best friend for the last twenty-five years. He's been witness to many major events in my life (or at least has heard about them very swiftly). Yet, every now and then, he'll be telling a story about one of our shared experiences and I'll notice events diverging from my own memory. Not usually important stuff, but little details where he remembers things one way and I remember things another.

I believe that there's an objective reality that underpins the entire world. I'm not one who goes in for the mystic mumbo jumbo that we create our own worlds through our perceptions. The past is a concrete thing. Yet, we are stuck attempting to percieve the past with tools ill suited for the job.

Human memory is notoriously fallible. I think my memory is pretty good about some things, but I have evidence it's truly lousy in other areas. For instance, I know some people who can tell me every teacher they ever had going back to kindergarten. I can't remember any teacher names past college. Zero.

On the other hand, when I went to dinner last week, I got into a discussion about Elizabeth Dole, our recently dethroned senator, and someone made a comment about what a lousy job she'd done as head of the Red Cross, where she'd opposed screening blood for AIDS. As much as I hated Dole, I had to spring to her defense. She hadn't become head of the Red Cross until the early nineties, and they started screening blood for AIDS back in the mid eighties while I was still in college. Someone grabbed their i-phone and went to wikipedia to verify this against Dole's biography. I was right... wikipedia right, at least, which is an iffy thing. Orson Scott Card complained in a recent post that his wikipedia page contained factual errors such as the dates of certain events in his life. He'd logged on and corrected these errors--and someone came along and "corrected" them back to the incorrect information.

When I think back about the big events in my life, I'm struck by how often they have good story arcs. After all, my major romantic relationships all had beginning, middles, and ends. There are portents and omens in the opening scenes of my memories that hint at how things will unravel later. Events frequently seem timed for maximum literary irony: I was served papers for my second divorce on Valentine's Day, for instance. Or, I wrecked my Honda Prelude, putting a long dent in the door and knocking hundreds off its value as I was driving it to the dealership to trade it in on my current car. Or, I once won a 5000 to 1 payoff on a slot machine on my birthday; another year, I got an offer from Solaris to buy Bitterwood on my birthday. One a more bittersweet note, I got my contract for Nobody Gets the Girl on the same day Laura got news that her cancer had returned.

Any given life is going to be full of these weird juxtapositions and coincidences. It's easy to see how some people can attribute some higher, guiding power to their lives assuming their experiences follow similar "storylines." I find myself wondering if it's just some pattern recognition function we humans have evolved that orders our memories into these meaningful arcs. Out of the background noise of daily events, does our brain constantly seek out causality and organize our lives into stories? After all, it would be useful to survival to remember the time you were out on the savanah laughing and singing with your family and a lion suddenly burst from the high grass and dragged away your child. You might learn not to let your guard down; you might learn there's a time and a place for laughter, but never to laugh in the high grass.

One thing that interests me is the effect technology is going to have on memory. When Laura passed away, I had strong memories of some of the things she'd told me in her early emails to me. I still had those emails. But when I went back to quote from them at her eulogy, I discovered I'd edited her words in my memory. I remembered the gist of what she had been saying, but specific lines in my memory were often patched together from bits and parts of different sentences. It's now so easy to document our lives in photos, emails, and recordings. I wonder if it will change us as humans as we constantly confront a recorded past that is slightly divergent from our memories. I suspect that what will happen is that we'll not dwell overly much on the documentation... traditional memory, flaws and all, will win out, since it gives meaning to the noise of events in our past.


Eric James Stone said...

You might be interested in reading about research done by my friend Jenn Whitson, which showed that a feeling of lack of control led to the false perception of patterns: http://blogs.mccombs.utexas.edu/mccombs-today/2008/10/whitson-in-science-loss-of-control-behind-superstitions-rituals-conspiracy-theories/

James Maxey said...

That's a very interesting article, although I can see dangers in extrapolating from some people seeing pictures in random dots to some people believing that the CIA killed John Lennon.

While I have no statistics or studies to back this up, I'm guessing that it's possible to go the other way as well. People who feel very much in control may actually be perceiving patterns where there are none. For instance, I'm guessing a lot of stock traders and bankers felt very confident and in control a year ago because they could look at numbers and trends that supported their belief that the stock market might experience a few dips, but overall for the year would likely climb. After all, that had been the pattern for a very long time. Of course, there were other patterns, ignored, that argued that markets were heading for a serious fall.

Of course, I don't know many Wall St. bankers. Maybe they felt all along that they had no control and were desperately searching for signals that everything was groovy.

rastronomicals said...

Funny how I can find myself readily agreeing with the anecdotes that Mr. Maxey provides when he says

It's easy to see how some people can attribute some higher, guiding power to their lives assuming their experiences follow similar "storylines."

while taking issue with the Whitson study, which had been presented not as anecdotes, but as something possessing scientific rigor.

Perhaps that means I lack control in my own life. Or maybe it just means I'm an argumentative son of a bitch.

But I'd sooner believe that each of us, from the most powerful to the least, from the most educated to the least, have a somewhat fixed threshold of persuasion that we employ when figuring out what to believe or what not to.

If I understand Mr. Maxey correctly, this is pretty much where he stands, but this more or less fixed threshold can be hurdled not only by evidence, but by coincidence which we misinterpret as causal.

Not sure I can buy the idea that we have a sliding scale, that one person can be more or less rigorous, less or more gullible, depending on circumstances relating to a vaguely defined position of "control."

Either you're from Missouri or you're not, you know what I mean?

For example, while definitely a skeptic on most issues, I do believe that the phenomenon known on the net as chemtrails do exist.

This certainly doesn't mean that they do in fact exist, and more importantly, it doesn't mean that the day I decided I believed in the things that I was feeling angry at The Man, or powerless in some other way, maybe 'cause somebody had stolen my parking space at the mall.

What it does mean is that I have found the evidence--whether real or merely an accumulation of the coincidental--persuasive.


John Brown said...

Some interesting comments along these same lines Here

And then again here when talking about writing Here

The fallacy however is to say that because life has randomness that all things must random.