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“Formulation” is the word I'll use for the idea that when one relates an experience, one puts it into a conventional form which then mostly takes the place of the original experience. I'm sure psychological jargon contains a nice specific word for this same idea, but I don't happen to know it, so I'll just use one that makes sense to me (see Neology). You should think of formula not in the sense of a chemical formula but in what turns out to be the primary dictionary sense:

An established form of words or symbols for use in a ceremony or procedure.

Saying “takes the place of the original experience” is a bit strong, and is the kind of thing that has led me to pooh-pooh many otherwise valid ideas. I might as well be saying “memory is all fiction, there's no objective reality, all opinions are valid”, right? Well, that's not what I mean. What I mean is not that the original experience is inaccessible, but that the conventional form is more accessible, so that when one is asked to relate the experience, one tends to report the conventional form without really thinking about it.

Surprisingly, formulation (at least for me) occurs in response not just to trivial questions like “how was the movie?” but even in response to serious questions like, say, “why did you quit your job?”. So, it's important to come up with an accurate formulation early on, otherwise you're likely to distort your thinking by repeating something that misses the point.

This is a good time to point out that formulation isn't something that happens all at once. The first time someone asks you how a movie was, you kind of mumble and say various things, but then the next time someone asks, you pick out the best ones and elaborate on them, then after enough repetitions the answer settles down and becomes a formula … converges, you might say.

The clearest example of formulation and convergence I know of is when people tell longish stories about things that have happened to them … specifically, when I hear someone tell the same story more than once. Sometimes the story will be exactly the same, but other times I can notice the adjustments and refinements. It was only after I saw other people doing this that I noticed I was doing it myself.

In fact, writing these essays is a kind of formulation. It's true I don't relate the essays word for word, but when I write about something, what I write does become the canonical expression in my mind, and I do find myself using the ideas I've formulated here in regular conversation. Now I even have a standard story about formulation!

Here are a few assorted thoughts, not that the above have any compelling structure.

I remember reading once that people, when asked a question to which they don't know the answer, tend to just make things up and then take the made-up things as fact. I think there is some truth in that idea. It applies best to questions about internal states, of course—one probably wouldn't make up an answer to a question of arithmetic. I wonder whether formulating my essays in isolation helps me avoid just making things up, since I have time to go back and revise as I write.

By the way, while reading Consciousness Explained I discovered an official name for “just making things up”: “confabulation”. (And guess what? It's Latin.)

Interestingly, even when a response to a particular question has been formulated, it's often possible to bring out a different, unformulated response by asking a related question, or even the same question in a way that emphasizes some other aspect. Sometimes the new response will be consistent with the old, sometimes it won't; and when it isn't, the two contradictory responses may or may not be able to coexist. I don't have any good examples at hand, but I think the idea is valid, I don't think I'm just making it up.


  See Also

  Methods of Choosing
  Rule of Correspondence, The

@ August (2000)