The meaning of memory as a string of pearls
December 30, 2023 11:02 PM   Subscribe

Hi! I have this vivid memory of reading a passage that described memory and how we create meaning from it as building a string of pearls. Creating a narrative of cause and effect that’s as neat as a pearl necklace even though it’s actually as random as pearls from the sea. It’s stuck with me for years. Do you know where it’s from?

I had thought it was from Ken Liu’s preface in The Paper Menagerie. Upon reread, he does talk about narrative in the abstract but nothing with pearls. Am I recalling a different author? Or did I superimpose my own metaphor into his message? (Ironic given the topic.)
posted by hotchocolate to Writing & Language (4 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure where you read about the idea but the academic paper that it came from is almost certainly "Memory as a String of Pearls" (link to a PDF) by Peter A. Hancock and Nushien Shahnam.

"Which representational metaphor one chooses serves to exert a powerful influence upon how we conceive of and subsequently think about time. In the human perception of time, one of the most critical faculties is that of memory, since it appears that we remember the past and anticipate the future while simultaneously experiencing the present. We here present a ‘string of pearls’ metaphor which captures the features of episodic memories (both retrospective and prospective) as the pearls on the string. The underlying continuity of lived experience of existence is equated with the thread of the string itself upon which these respective episodic pearls are mounted. The advantages, nuances, and drawbacks of the use of this metaphor to the understanding of time perception are discussed. "

It was mentioned in Stutz, Jonah Hill’s documentary on his therapist - maybe you read it in an article like this?
posted by underclocked at 11:12 PM on December 30, 2023 [4 favorites]

Slightly related here is the Roman mnemonic strategy of loci which uses the recollection of a string of places in a physical space as a memory tool. That is pretty similar to the idea of assembling memories from disparate sources into a string of memorable sequence. I guess the former is conscious process and the latter is unconscious.
posted by rongorongo at 6:36 AM on December 31, 2023

You might be thinking of Ralph Waldo Emerson, from his essay Experience:
Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. From the mountain you see the mountain. We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them. It depends on the mood of the man, whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem. There are always sunsets, and there is always genius; but only a few hours so serene that we can relish nature or criticism. The more or less depends on structure or temperament. Temperament is the iron wire on which the beads are strung. Of what use is fortune or talent to a cold and defective nature? Who cares what sensibility or discrimination a man has at some time shown, if he falls asleep in his chair?
posted by Ragged Richard at 7:01 AM on December 31, 2023 [5 favorites]

I remember a writing teacher mentioning this metaphor when I was in college (2002?) though I don’t remember who she attributed it to.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:48 AM on January 1

« Older Why Would MX Records Revert to Previous Servers...   |   Power adaptor options for Nintendo Switch Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments