Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Volatile Memory

There’s a kind of unwritten assumption that human memory works a bit like a filing cabinet or a computer hard drive. Every time you have an experience or think of something, your brain stuffs it away in a vault somewhere in the back of your head using some kind of convoluted indexing and location system like NTFS. Then later, when you want to remember it, your brain goes searching for the file - rummaging around in your store of memories until it finds it. It then dusts it off and hands it back to your conscious brain to deal with.

Like many common concepts, this is entirely wrong. If you hack off the top of your head with a machete and peer inside you’ll soon spot that your brain doesn’t work anything like that.

Say what?

You brain is a complex bit of kit but it doesn’t run Windows and it doesn’t alphabetize your memory into a handy folder structure. At least, that’s what scientists who electrocute rats tell us. Memories are in fact formed by proteins that form permanent connections between parts of the brain. In essence – the structure of your brain holds a memory. However, more interestingly, every time you remember something, those pathways are destroyed and rebuilt.
So what does that really mean? Well – let’s imagine the memory section of the brain as a big wiring kit like they use to teach electronics at school. When you have an experience, rather than writing down a massive report of all the details and shoving it in a filing cabinet you instead wire up a complex diagram that has all the ways different connections between different subjects have been affected by this. (This is the set of connections that are hard-wired into the actual physical structure of your brain¹)

Later, you want to remember something. So your conscious mind goes to find the wiring. It can’t see down in the depths of the spaghetti mess of your brain so it just pulls up all the wires it can find that seem to fit the instance. You might not get all of them, but you’ll probably get most. Then your conscious mind can use these connections to create yourself a little re-play of the event. However, because it pulled out all the connecting wires to get a good look at them, there are no connections in your brain anymore. Fortunately, you don’t just forget everything. Why? Well, because you just had an experience to remember: The experience of watching your little re-play in your head. So… you store that re-play by putting down a load of entirely new wires into the structure of your brain.

The rub here is – these will be different from the last lot. Each time you experience things you lay more wires – they will have invariably been tangled up a bit². But also – your re-play (which is about to become your new memory) is affected by other things that you’re thinking about while you remember it.

Therefore – if you’re remembering your holiday while you’re sitting in a cold doctor’s office waiting for your frostbitten toes to be glued back on – it’ll probably seem really warm and pleasant by comparison. This rose-tinted view now becomes part of your actual memory of the event.

There are lots of documented examples of how you can use this to affect people’s memory of things they actually witnessed.

In one example – the policeman asks the witness:

“Did you see a red Camero driving away from the scene of the bank robbery?”

And the witness – who didn’t see any red cars at all, says that he didn’t see it. But – a connection is made – subconsciously. The concept of a Red Comero is now sitting in the same bit of wiring as the bank robbery, because our witness thought about it while remembering the robbery.

Later another policeman asks

“Are you sure you didn’t see a red Camero?”

Now – when the witness remembers – it’s contaminated a little – but he’s pretty sure he didn’t see it. So he says no.

However – after sleeping on it and coming back the next day – when asked the same question – he thinks – you know – maybe I did… And his brain makes up a replay of the event with the red Camero in it. (And, as we know, stores this memory in lieu of the previous time he remembered.)

Next time the witness is asked – he can remember seeing the red Camero. It’s not that he’s confused, or hypnotized or anything³ - it’s just that his memory of the event had changed. The ‘original’ memory doesn’t exist. He only has the current one – and it’s got a red Camero in it. (Scientists are amazed at the level of detail that the subconscious can apply to a ‘invented’ memory like this – it’s completely indistinguishable from the ‘real thing™’)

Well – this is all very interesting (yawn) – but what’s that got to do with GMing and role-playing and killing things with pointy bits of metal?

Let me explain.

We took thirty six rats and injected each with 3cc of D&D 2nd Ed⁴. We split the rats into two groups. One group was fed on vegetarian, protein-free cheese while the other was fed on regular, full fat, high protein cheese. The rats were then mixed up and split into gaming groups, each consisting of one GM Rat and three player-rats. We watched as the rats played through a few campaigns in controlled conditions. By alternating the GM of the games we could tell that the GM Rats fed on vegetarian cheese were writing down their plot ideas in great detail before they ran the campaign, while those fuelled by the high protein content cheese could keep whole plot arcs in their heads. This is thought to be because the rats on the vegetarian cheese lack the proteins to form the pathways in the brain that form memory and so needed to write things down or they would forget them.

Interestingly, the GM Rats that did everything from memory had vastly more interesting and diverse plots and were much more capable of handling unexpected events that their player-rats threw at them. Because they had to keep remembering (and hence – recreating) their plot concepts, these concepts were continually embellished and also more fluid as each act of remembering took into account knowledge gained through play. By contrast, the rats that wrote everything down, aside from having real trouble reading their own handwriting⁵ tended to have static and hence more fragile plot structures. Once written down, the plots were fixed and if the player-rats threw a curveball the GM rat struggled to re-align the campaign. Also, because the plots were written once and then this record use throughout, the plots tended to be very linear as they were conceived all in one go and didn’t change depending on the level of interest the player rats showed in the different plot elements.

Ok. Now. What does this implausible and frankly, highly unscientific and entirely fictional experiment tells us? Hmm?

Well – glad you asked.

It’s about thinking. Part of the art of the Fluid GM is to be able to re-organize the plot on the fly – to not be thrown by the unexpected foibles of whimsical players. As a Fluid GM you have to be able to swing along with the plot like you always planned it that way, even when they kill off your important NPC without even asking his name and throw the magical gem they need to get into the wizard’s tower into the sea because they think it’s listening to their dreams (or whatever dumb-ass thing they come up with).

The fluid GM re-evaluates his plot each time. Not just the next bit, but all of it. Like a high-protein rat in a red Camero the Fluid GM alters reality to fit. The only things that are fixed are those that the players remember. A good fluid GM can shift everything else around behind the scenes and play on as if nothing happened⁶. The magic gem is suddenly transformed into a worthless bit of glass while the key to wizard’s tower is now something else (maybe undecided at the moment because the fluid GM can wait for an appropriate item to show up naturally) – the important NPC has vengeful family and so they become part of the plot and carry the information the players need – but they’ll have to work hard for it now… The plot – like memory, isn’t fixed. It’s ever changing, reacting, re-writing itself to suit all that has come before. It’s Fluid.

Think about your plot all the time. Re-think it. Change it. Re-plot. Re-plan. Get used to the idea that nothing is for keeps. Try not to write too much of it down. Only write down things that are facts. People’s names, locations and such can be written down, because these are ok to be fixed, but be prepared to change the significance of such people and places.

If this sounds a bit daunting – try it in fragments first. Try just making your “Random Encounters” fluid for example. See how it works and as you grow more confident with the idea extend it into other areas of your game.

And remember: A Fluid GM is like a Rat in a Red Comero and he makes it all look easy. How does he reach the pedals? Well – it may look improbable – but it’s all smoke and mirrors really, your players won’t know how it’s done – but the mechanics are actually pretty simple. Give your rat a booster seat and a good pair of stilts and you’re on the road…

¹ Of course, you brain doesn’t have access to a wiring kit with the little plastic ends that fall off – so it uses proteins and bits of jelly and stuff.

² It’s well known that any two wires brought within a foot of one another will be tangled within 0.34 seconds (even if they never actually touch). Since the number and complexity of the tangles is directly proportionate to the number of wires multiplied by the inverse of the distance between them it is clear that your brain is a mess.

³ Although he may well be confused/hypnotized for other reasons… I mean – he’s wearing that tutu like a pro and those kneepads can’t have come cheap.

⁴ We would have used mice because they’re cheaper, but they can’t seem to figure out the whole THAC0 thing.

⁵ Seriously, rats have terrible handwriting. It’s like a kind of half-assed scrawl. My mother can do better! (Maybe we should train rats as doctors…)

⁶ A really great Fluid GM can alter the player’s memories so that they think they’ve just played the most awesome campaign ever, when in fact they’ve been living in the basement drinking stagnant water as part of a long term plan to force them into a life of prostitution.

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