In this instalment of the series of blogs on the dualities of life, I would discuss the duality of fact and fiction. The duality of fact and fiction is slightly different from the other dualities that I have discussed so far. The dualities discussed so far were products of our mind. Be it a duality of optimism and pessimism or be it a duality of destiny and free will, all of them could be deemed to be parts of our beliefs. However, this duality of fact and fiction is not in the same category. The notion of fact refers to the reality outside , whereas the notion of fiction refers to a product of our imagination. Therefore, in principle, this duality should not exist. After all, a fact points towards the world outside whereas a fiction points towards the world inside. However, as discussed below, this duality is as real as any other duality that affects our lives.

Let us see how this duality arises. The facts are normally stored in our memories just as they are. Whatever the facts we can gather by seeing, reading or listening, are normally preserved in our memories. Admittedly, this process is imperfect. We might miss out some details, or we might wrongly perceive some details. Therefore, it is easy to realise that the facts which we remember may be inaccurate and incomplete. However, within the reasonable limits, one can assert that facts are remembered just as they are. The question therefore arises is, in that case, how would facts be influenced by our thinking ? The answer lies in the mechanisms by which our memories are created. Unlike computers, which store data in a physical form of a byte, our human mind stores these facts in a non physical form called virtual memory. In other words, our memories of individual facts can not be located in any particular part of our brains. ( There is no neuron which has a record of how our grandmothers looked like. ) . While this mechanisms is very useful in storing humongous amount of facts (which would otherwise require large computer ) in our brains, this mechanisms has its own difficulties. These arise from the nature of this mechanisms of creating virtual memory. It is this mechanisms of creating virtual memory that is responsible for the duality of fact and fiction. Let us see how.

A human mind creates memories not by recording facts but by interpreting them before creating a mental record. When the human brain interprets a fact, the process of interpretation helps it to reduce the size of the information content. For instance, if we were to remember the names all our friends, it would be difficult to do it in a alphabetical order. However, what a human mind does is to understand the nature of friendship that you have with each name on the list. Having done that, it simply bunches all our school friends together. Similarly, it creates grouping of our college friends, building friends etc. By understanding our friend’s context in our lives, our brains simplify the recording of the memories. While this looks trivially obvious, this is a very effective strategy. However, at the heart of this method is something that we have yet to figure out. A human mind knows a meaning of the word friend, but we don’t know how it does. The key point is that it is this unknown method of understanding of human notions that links the memories of these facts with our ability to create fiction. Let us see how.

I would like to qualify the term fiction. Normally, the term fiction is used to describe the outputs of novelists and story writers. However, the term fiction, in my opinion, must also include all the lies that we tell to others (and to ourselves ! ) . When a novelist writes a fiction, she /he begins with some understanding of the way the world functions or the way a human mind functions. In other words, a novelist begins with some understanding and then, in order to create a narrative, she /he inserts facts into the story. This insertion of facts is necessary because it makes fiction readable and convincing. When we tell lies, we do a similar thing. First, we create some plausible excuse and then to make that excuse convincing, we insert facts into that excuse.

It must be clear that both these processes, of remembering facts and of creating a fiction, employ the same mechanism. Therefore, it is this common mechanism that gives rise to the duality of fact and fiction. Ideally, things would have been simple. We would remember the facts and similarly, we would write or read fiction (or even tell lies !) without any major problems. The problem however is that somewhere along the line, a human mind loses track. It often fails to separate a fact from a fiction. It starts believing that even the fiction is real and the lies are the facts. It is a common experience. When we tell lies, we are keen to remember those lies. Of course, initially, we want remember the lies we have told because we want to ensure that our future behaviour is in accordance with these lies. However, without our knowledge and consent, our minds start treating those lies as if they were facts. This is because a human mind uses the same mechanism for botb these activities. Thus, this creates a situation wherein a part the brain insists that this is a fiction even though another part of the brain insists that the this is a fact.. This fight between the two parts of the brain on whether what is in its memory is a fact or a fiction that gives rise to angst. More importantly, a human mind has no certain way of distinguishing between these two types of memories. Therefore, a human being is condemned to live in twilight of fact and fiction without knowing which is which. A true punishment for a liar is to live with that lie. A similar fate awaits novelists ! We are condemned to live with our novels.

In my next blog, I would discuss the duality of conviction and doubt.


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