Luck and Uniqueness
Of course, this reaction is clichéd and smells like a set up, and it is, but that does not deny it a measure of validity. Neither does this example mean that the girl is even conscious of the connection between the painting, all the other mental associations she has in her brain between it and the day her father gave her that red bicycle, and then those connecting it to her father dying. She does not have to be conscious of her entire catalogue of mental associations and indeed, it would be unbelievable if she were. However, the example does show that the girl’s reaction to the painting was unique, all the other people helping to set up the exhibition that evening did not go home and cry and mourn for their fathers. Would it be stretching this example a little too thin to say the artist had the intention when creating the piece the exact reaction produced by the girl – without a doubt yes, one-hundred percent yes it would be. However, that is fine because actually it would be insane to think the artist consciously traced the entire mental association landscape of a person before creating his work but conversely it does not mean he did not have some portions of it in mind.
Notes on a Palm-of-the-Hand Story
My mother uses her fingernail to scratch Chinese characters into the palm of her hand. She does it, she says, so she won’t forget how to write.
When Chinese meet in the street and fail to understand each other’s speech, they too resort to palm-of-the-hand writing.
My right hand has a heart line that runs flat across my palm from west to east. The mark of a murderer, they say. Though lately, since I’ve begun writing, my heart grows optimistic.
What are palm-of-the-hand stories if not messages rolled into a tiny bottle? A substance that is not constrained by size but rather thrives in its narrowness.
A palm-of-the-hand story is a gift. Let us admire its wrapping, all its sharp corners and fragile folds, before sinking our teeth into its eggy wholeness.
Yasunari Kawabata, Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. North Point Press, San Francisco 1988. Translated by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman.
Theodore W. Goossen (ed.), The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2010.
Karen Kao is a writer of Shangha noir. Her debut novel, The Dancing Girl and the Turtle, is the first in a set of four interlocking novels set in Shanghai. You can read more about Karen and her work at inkstonepress.com. And you can pick up here novel The Dancing Girl and the Turtle from Amazon. And Karen's most recent essay, Memory Palace, is now live at The Shanghai Literary Review.
Continuing on with the example of our little girl and her bicycle but now twenty-some years in the future when she is a young woman in her mid-twenties recently graduated from her undergraduate studies and presently taking a year off to enjoy herself and think before deciding what to do for graduate school. During this time, she has taken a job as an assistant to an assistant at an art gallery, which while not paying very well, does at least somewhat satisfy her desire for an interesting workplace while she mulls her study options. Then one random day at work, she is helping to install a new exhibition of a young artist whose work is very heavily tilted towards the abstract. She, being new to this world, is mostly silent while her co-workers ramble on about this and that concerning the different pieces they have already hung on the walls. After all, for her a four-foot by six-foot panel painted half-green and half-blue brought to mind nothing but the sky and the earth. Actually, there have been moments when she had to keep her face hidden from the others when they turned something like that blue and green painting into a statement on the improvability of the existence of man. Then after everything had been hung and all that was left to do was a little cleaning up our not so little girl takes a seat to catch her breath and look at what they have done. And, that is when it happens.
It is a longer piece, eight feet in length by only two feet in height and at first glance, a completely red canvass save a small jagged black circle in the top right corner. It catches her attention, and with this comes the realization the red is not a solid opaque pigment but rather is a textured spectrum of red, which seem to thicken outwardly as it darkens and falls back into the painting as it lightens. This ebb and flow of color transmit a sensation of motion to her and she starts to find the subtlety of it hypnotic. Then after a while, her eyes find the black spot and she closes her eyes and shakes her head slightly. “Are you tired?” Her boss asks. She answers no, puts it out of her mind, and finishes-up an hour later with everyone else. That night lying in bed, after three glasses of wine and a shower, she starts to cry as she opens her eyes so that she can stop seeing the image of her father’s casket being lowered into the ground.
The Formation of Concepts and Associations
This premise of association is extremely important for understanding how flash fiction works on a cognitive level because it is the knowledge and memories and, most importantly, the associations a person has in their brain that will form the tableau into which a piece of flash fiction will enter and start to work. To understand how this works, and to avoid the debate of empty or pre-loaded, a young girl of five will do the trick.
A young child and her mother are sitting in bed reading. On the page is a picture of a little girl, similar in age to the one reading, riding a bicycle. The text underneath the image reads, ‘Sally is riding her bicycle.’ The young girl has not yet learned how to read but understands ‘bicycle’ when her mother reads the sentence out to her and she is just as confident in her ability to point out the image while repeating the word back to her mother.
The mother is naturally proud and after telling her daughter so points out the word on the page that represents ‘bicycle’. The two of them say the word a couple times together, with the mother running her finger under the word every time. The little girl informs her mother that she too has a bicycle, which prompts, “That is right you do; a red one. Your daddy gave it to you because you are such a good little girl.”
This is how many children learn to read; by connecting written words with images; sometimes with previously known objects and sometimes with new concepts entirely. From a psychological point of view, this variety of encoding, visual, auditory and semantic, combine to increase the strength of the memory. This increase occurs because each of the different encoding methods requires its own firing of a neurotransmitter between the synapses involved with the concept ‘bicycle’. Meaning there will be at least three new connections forged for the concept ‘bicycle’ and thusly these multiple synaptic connections act to increase the likelihood of retaining the concept due to greater number of routes by which to access the memory.
Furthermore, the situation in which the young child is learning these new connections is also incorporated into her concept of ‘bicycle’. She feels comfortable and safe lying in bed with her mother, who is smiling and giving both the story and her little girl her complete attention. These elements contribute to a process called state-dependent learning which also effects encoding. The emotional states, both experienced and observed by the child, are not new to her but they will now become associated to the concept of ‘bicycle’. The dialogue between the child and her mother also contribute to the concept because it ‘bicycle’ has now been linked to the child’s memories of father, gift, reward, praise, good girl, etc. Of course, the strength of any one of these connections will depend on her personal history with the mentioned elements but the example does give evidence of a complex group of associations becoming connected to her concept of ‘bicycle’.
However, the story ends but the next morning the same young girl is riding her bicycle to school for the first time. This will bring in new connections to the concept ‘bicycle’ in her brain. Perhaps ideas of freedom, responsibility and punctuality will form associations with ‘bicycle’ and influence these new associations with the positive emotional state already established for ‘bicycle’. The same could be said for the ideas of school, learning and education because these too are possibilities facilitated by ‘bicycle’. This example illustrates the non-static property of a both a concept and associations, for through the little girl’s continuous exposure to new experiences and thoughts via her bicycle they will end up forming new and more complex associations to her original concept of ‘bicycle’.
Thus far, the examples have been positive; however, her concept of ‘bicycle’ could just as well develop negative associations. Perhaps after arriving at school, she is scolded, berated or embarrassed by her teacher or a classmate, then these negative associations to her concept of ‘school’ could override the previous positives, turning her concept of ‘bicycle’ into a facilitator of unwanted, negative states. This associative trail could then lead her back to the father, the impetus of all of this through him being the deliverer of the bicycle. Another possibility is that the two concepts of ‘bicycle’ and ‘school’ could lose their connectedness; the positive of the ‘bicycle’ existing independently from her negative concept of ‘school’. In fact, the permutations possible regarding the associations our young girl could make are infinite and will be unique to her. However, the point is not that these associations are reliably mappable but rather that they exist in a non-isolated state, they change and everyone is constantly reorganizing their own associations.
here to edit.
I thought we were talking about how Flash Fiction works?
In flash fiction, the soil is the brain of the reader and the associations held in it, and just as the farmers’ in the 1390s needed to know about the conditions of the soil to get their crops growing, a writer of flash fiction needs to understand the brain into which their work is going. To begin, it is necessary to understand how the brain is when life begins.
However obvious it might be to anyone that they do have a brain; the native state of it is still a somewhat unanswered question for the field of psychology. There are however, two major yet completely opposite camps to use as departure points – it is empty when we start or it comes preloaded with inherited knowledge/memories. Empty is clear enough, there is nothing there and a person simply acquires information via their senses through stimulus from, at first, elements of their environment and then later also through exercising cognitive reasoning with previously attained knowledge to create new understandings of themselves and/or their surroundings. This theory of the brain is commonly known as tabula rasa and has been in existence at least since the writings of Aristotle in 4 BC (Aristotle, 1936). The other theory, perhaps most popularized by Karl Jung, is not as easily defined, as there are a variety of theories pertaining to both the suspected content and the commonality of the preloaded knowledge or memories within each individual. In the case of Jung, he believed a person has access to a collective unconscious within which there exist archetypes or ideas, which assist a person to shape, their beliefs towards and understanding of, the reality they inhabit (Cherry, n.d.). Taking this or any of the other prominent theories currently in season in the field of psychology related to the native state of the brain, there is one premise constant among them all – some amount of knowledge is inherent and is not learned but rather discovered by the individual. So there it stands, empty, ready and waiting or influenced by one or more eternal notions but ready to get more nonetheless.
Here though it does not matter; the amount or content of any pre-existing knowledge does not impact on how flash fiction works, just as it does not matter if there is something there or nothing there when someone is born. What is fundamental is that regardless of what any theory states concerning the native contents; all theories agree that new information is acquired through time. Furthermore, these theories all suppose that this new information does not rest in a state of isolation – it mixes with what is already inside the individual to create a new knowledge base. This means new knowledge connects to old knowledge, which existed before it and through this process becomes more than a single, isolated piece of data; it becomes associated.
Aristotle, On the Soul (De Anima), W. S. Hett (trans.), pp. 1–203 in Aristotle,Volume 8, Loeb Classical Library, William Heinemann, London, UK, 1936
Cherry, K. (n.d.). Archetypes: Jung’s Archetypes. Retrieved from http:// psychology.about. com/od/personalitydevelopment/tp/archetypes.htm