Tag Archives: memory

The Sins of Memory

I wrote last week about my incorrect memory about some car repair work I thought I had had done, which was disproved by a check of the actual invoices. I wondered what else I was wrong about. It isn’t just me, nor just that time. I am not alone in this forgetting, or misremembering. I just caught it. 

In February 2015, Brian Williams, news anchor for MSNBC, was suspended over “lies” he had told concerning his time in Iraq in 2003. He claimed to have been in a helicopter with troops when it was shot down with an RPG in Iraq. He was actually in a helicopter about a half hour behind the helicopter that did indeed get shot down. Did he lie, perhaps in order to embellish his image? Or was he mistaken in his memory? We can’t say for sure, of course, but many who study memory suspect that he was not lying, but really believed he remembered the story as he was telling it. As evidence they point to how Williams’ telling of the story changed over time. Closer to the event he told it much closer to the verified facts. The story only grew over time into the version that got him in trouble[1].

It turns out this is what memory does. Our memories are not recordings; they are quite changeable. Many studies have been published over recent years that demonstrate this. Some even show that it is possible to implant memories in people’s minds. In one study researchers were able to shape someone’s recollection of an accident simply depending on the words they used to describe it to them.[2 ]

Dale Allison, a New Testament professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, summarizes the matter, “Because human memory ‘leaks and dissociates,’ all of us are, to one degree or another, fabulists, even when we try not to be.”[3]

In his book he summarizes what are called “The Sins of Memory”, the ways that our memories betray us and behave in unexpected ways:

– Our memories are reconstructions and not simply recordings. They do not function like a video recorder, but rather, our memories rework and alter specific memories imaginatively.

In what ways do we change and rebuild our memories?

1) We add information to our memories after the fact. If we learn more about the event from another source, or others tell us what they remember, we rework our own memories to incorporate that information. In this way we can even come to “remember” things that we never experienced. Think about how you remember the events of 9/11. Our memory of an event so widely experienced and talked about has probably changed over time, especially as we heard those close to us share their memories.

2) We project our current opinions, ideas, and morals onto our memories. We change them according to what we think we should have done or thought, or how it ought to have happened, or what I should have been thinking when the memory happened.

3) Memories dim over time, becoming less distinct and less emotionally intense. 

4) Time is relative in memories. The order of memories in time can shift dramatically.

5) We change our memories in ways that support who we think we are and what we are about. We alter our memories to justify or explain ourselves, or to fit in with a group.

6) The memories we tell tend to be the ones we, or our group or community, approve of. We are more likely to forget those memories of which we are ashamed of or disapprove of in some way. Groups do this too, collectively forgetting inconvenient memories.

7) Since we often share memories as stories, we reshape the memory as a story, giving it a clear beginning and end, casting people in the story more as characters in a story. This reshaping can actually change the memory; the recreation becomes the original.

8) And, finally, vivid, compelling memories are no more secure from alteration than others.[4]

I first heard of these “sins” last Fall when I took a course with Dr. Allison on the Historical Jesus. In his book, Constructing Jesus, he considers the Gospel accounts of Jesus from the perspective of recent memory study. How did these strange behaviors of memory affect the writing of the Gospels? While these behaviors of memory do, as Dr. Allison summarized (if I remember correctly!), cast doubt on any one particular story or teaching recorded in the Gospels, they also support the fact that patterns of memory must be based on truth. Just as witnesses of a car accident may tell very different accounts of what exactly happened, yet they is agree that an accident happened, so also, the fact that there are so many stories of Jesus healing, casting out demons, and teaching certain things, must mean that Jesus did really heal, exorcise, and teach such things. Memory study shows that patterns of our memory are reliable, if not the specifics of each memory. For a professor that once was part of the Jesus Seminar, this is a big change of opinion.

I ran into an interesting way that memory works in these ways in churches a few years ago. Over the course of several months I dug out all the historical documents of the church, even going downtown to the Presbyterian Historical Society where are archives are located. I read everything I could find. Annual reports. Meeting minutes. Directories. Then we held a board retreat where I shared with the elders a lot of what I had learned. As part of that retreat we also told stories about the church. It was fascinating what memories came out easy, and which ones what been suppressed over the years. I’ll give you two examples.

First, the recent memory of the tragic death of a pastor from cancer was in the process of being forgotten. The pastor prior to me had, after only a short time in the church, been diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. He underwent treatment for some time, finally having to go out on disability. He did not recover and died six months before I started at the church. Now, this board retreat was held about 8 years or so after he died so you think the memory would be still fairly fresh. Actually it was already receding. We realize during our discussions that newer members, some of whom were on the board, had no idea such a thing had ever happened. The pastor’s name, even, was unknown to them. Here is a case of a group forgetting a difficult memory; the event was disappearing from our history.

The second example was even more fully lost. Back in the 1950’s there was a tremendously awkward conflict between the session (that is the board in Presbyterian churches) and the current pastor. It involved his wife and some women in the church as well as the elders and pastor. In my years at the church up to that point I never heard this story, nor had I even heard the pastor’s name mentioned. Yet, when I told this story to the elders, and later to some of the long-time members of the church, a few of them nodded their heads, remembering the events. Yet no one ever spoke of them and most people had no idea of the events.

Through re-remembering these stories at the retreat we were able to see some patterns in our life together as a church. We were also able to learn how we tended to handle conflict and difficult situations. Yet, forgetting these events had prevented us from learning these lessons.

Memory is a tricky thing. It’s “sins”, it’s ways of working, can make getting to what really happened quite difficult. But this also points out the importance of sharing our memories, telling our stories and listening to others. The truth is best discerned in the company of one another. 
[1]: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/09/was-brian-williams-a-victim-of-false-memory/

[2]: http://www.newsweek.com/brian-williams-bald-lies-or-false-memories-307167

[3]: Dale C. Allison, Jr. Constructing Jesus: memory, imagination, and history. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2010, p. 2.

[4]: Constructing Jesus, pp.2-8.