How do we remember characters?

I have a question of cognitive science: how do we hold in our minds the combination of characteristics that make up a particular object or character?

How do we then keep that specific combination in mind and consistent over the span of a narrative?

Consistency is a hard one. Characters may be separated by several pages or chapters but we still expect consistency.

Possible clues:

  • Working memory – e.g. similar to remembering a phone number. We can remember about 3-5 discrete items – but often our characters or objects are of greater complexity than this. Chunking has been seen to be a way of holding more representations in mind; where we combine multiple properties under one limited placeholder representation.
  • It does not seem possible that combinations are stored via changes in synaptic configurations, at least in the short term. What may be the case is that we make use of slowly changeable underlying representations, which we modify (“delta”) and combine.
  • There would seem to be a hierarchy of features, which dictates what needs to be remembered for consistency (e.g. alive or dead is magnitudes more important than repetition of character thought). It maybe that consistency consists of presence or absence of clearly separable pre-constructed representations (e.g. we know alive and dead are clearly different so we just need to link one of those pre-existing concepts).
  • Hot and cold recall – it is a well known fact that it is easier to recall primed or pre-activated representations. This tends to fade but may have effects over a time scale of minutes up to an hour. It would appear that this is a relatively broad-brush effect – it is reported that related representations are also more easily retrieved. Cold recall is probably more influenced by repetition and longer-term changes in synaptic configurations.
  • Combinations of characteristics appear to be based on higher level sensory representations, which in turn may be constructed from lower level sub-components, all with affective weightings. Anecdotally, many of my representations appear to be primarily visual – is there any research on how those that are blind from birth “imagine” objects?
  • Imagination and remembering appear to use the same underlying mechanisms – they all involve the “top down” activation of portions of neuronal representations based on an internal driver that is (semi) independent of the current incoming sensory streams. This is all happening in time within nested feedback loops – locking onto a harmonic signal is a useful analogy.
  • Is imagination, i.e. the ability to create new combinations of characteristics, uniquely human? If so what is it about the human brain that allows this? Evidence suggests a looser coupling between sensory input and representation, or the fact that higher level features can be activated somewhat independently of lower level circuits.
  • The prefrontal cortex is keep to the initial top-down control and the coordination of timing. But imagination and manipulation of representations appears to require the coordination of the whole brain. Often ignored structures such as the thalamus and basal ganglia are likely important for constructing and maintaining the feedback loop.
  • Although we feel an imagined combination appears instantaneously, this may be just how we perceive it – the feedback loops may activate over time in an iterative manner to “lock onto” the combination such that it appears in our minds.