The Science of Memory and Imagination
Lee Stoops is back again with the third installment of his look at the unforgettable image in fiction.
Memory and imagination are interchangeable in a way because of the way they inform one another. This is especially true in storytelling. And it’s kind of like a closed loop, a Mobius strip, with no clear chicken or egg. Memory is created by witness, which is immediately followed by processing, followed by recall, which is only possible because of imagination. It goes on like this.
It’s been shown with MRI technology that in both cases of memory and imagination, blood flows to the same parts of the brain at the same rate, regardless of which is being used. (To read more on this, check out Priscilla Long’s My Brain on my Mind)
What we might label “long term” memories are stored deep in the brain and are easier to recall because we recall them all the time. The “unforgettable images” we read and write go into the same place – we can’t get rid of them and we can’t help ourselves but think about them. That long term space is quick setting concrete and it’s out of our reach of control.
In case you’re curious (if you’ve gotten to here, you are – and thank you), it’s the Neocortex and Thalamus that are responsible for controlling the brain’s imagination. These are, unsurprisingly, the same pieces that control both consciousness and abstract thought.
So, imagination involves a bunch of different brain functions: emotions, memory, sensory recall. Understanding how memory and imagination are linked within the brain (not the physiological so much as the way they interact with our interior selves) means we can start to understand and link significant experiences with imagination for the sake of our work.
As children, we all went through basic training for imaginations by listening to others tell stories. In narrative, it all comes down to the exactness of chosen words to evoke imagination and a sensory experience.
We focus on the senses – smell, taste, sound, texture, sight – because it’s what we’ve been trained to do. By others and by our brains. And while we remember much of what we read and write, because we can’t help ourselves, it’s the very specific images that make all the difference – this is our biology at work.
This is important to reconcile because our visual sense becomes our primary sense when we read and write. What we see in our mind, and the emotional response it evokes, relies on what we can “see.”
In the next post, we’ll build a case for changing the way we think about our imaginations and memories.