One of the more interesting speakers at the Southwest Psychological Association annual conference is Daniel Schacter, PhD, a Harvard University professor whose expertise is in memory research. As I listened to him speak, a number of biblical references came to mind.
Dr. Schacter’s findings have led him to think of memory not so much as an accurate recording and storage of past events, as an “adaptive constructive process”. Memory is, to be sure, very important, but it is not as accurate as we mind wish it to be.
In one of my psychology classes, I show a video of a striking experiment in which subjects are brought in and showed 3 pictures from their pasts, obtained with permission from family members. The catch is that one of the pictures is a phony one; a scene where the subject as a child and a family member are on a balloon ride has been created, by photoshopping a cropped picture of the subject and relative into the balloon ride picture background. Each subject is asked to look at the 3 pictures and tell the story of what they remember about the event. Not surprisingly, subjects do not recognize the hot balloon picture, so that they cannot tell a story about it.
What is fascinating is that when the pictures are shown again to the subjects a week later, a majority of subjects now “remember” the hot air balloon ride with the family member. They tell a story and fill in details… even though the event NEVER happened! In other words, their memory plays tricks on them. They construct a memory and begin to believe it is real. And not of some insignificant event that would be easily forgotten or confabulated, but of a hot air balloon ride!
Certainly, our capacity to make up and believe false memories has implications, both legal and therapeutic. Such findings are a key reason reputable therapists do not believe in most “recovered memories” of abuse, particularly when they are induced via hypnosis or some other therapeutic technique. Just today, an article in Le Monde speaks of a psychotherapist found guilty of many egregious practices that harmed patients, one of which involved “recovering” memories of abuse.
But, that is not my focus here. The finding that memory involves both construction and recollection is of tremendous importance and begs an explanation. Is it simply a mistake, an error, a limitation of our brains? Could our highly developed, complex and extremely capable brains really be that “glitchy”? Not likely.
This is where the research from Dr. Schacter’s lab is so interesting. His team has come upon a number of interesting findings:
1. Memory is constructive.
2. We remember things narratively. Rather than raw facts, we store meaning. We try and make sense of events. We remember “stories”, if you will, better than bits and pieces of information.
3. We remember things loaded with emotion better than neutral events.
4. Our immediate recall of events with either negative or positive associated emotions is comparable.
5. Our delayed memory for events with positive emotions (and even neutral emotional content) is better than that of events with negative emotions.
But perhaps the most fascinating finding is this:
6. Our ability to remember the past is DIRECTLY related to our capacity to imagine the future. In other words, if you ask someone who cannot remember what they did the last few days to imagine what they might see themselves doing tomorrow… they draw a blank. They simply cannot imagine it!
As a Christian psychologist, I find this fascinating in light of the fact that Scripture (a) consists largely of “stories” or narratives and (b) repeatedly asks us to remember the stories of the past. For instance,
In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Before our eyes the LORD sent signs and wonders—great and terrible—on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land he promised on oath to our ancestors. (Deut 6:20-23)
My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD,
his power, and the wonders he has done. (Psalm 78:1-3)
Likewise, in the New Testament, stories of old are constantly recalled, as Paul does here for the Corinthians, reminding them of Israel’s failings:
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come (I Cor 10:11)
So, this is how all this fits together for me. If we are to have the kind of imagination we need to have hope for the future, to envision the kind of people we are called to be, we must have a good memory. And I think that is true individually and collectively. And just like the writer of Deutoronomy seems to suggest, our focus should not be on laws and precepts, but on stories. In fact, the stories are what teach us, illustrate for us, and help us remember the precepts… and MORE IMPORTANTLY what we will desperately need in order to have the spiritual imagination to live today.
I come from a movement (the Restoration Movement) with a lovely and lofty dream: to get back to the New Testament way of doing things. I think there is much wisdom in trying to get back to the Word, trying to understand it as the early disciples did.
And yet, the world has changed; sociopolitical conditions are widely different for most us; the roles of men and women have evolved tremendously; contexts or mobility and communication are unrecognizable when compared to the first century; we are faced with ethical quandaries they could not have imagined. And all too often, it is not really feasible to cut-and-paste ready made answers from the text to our situation.
On those occasions when we do precisely this kind of direct transfer (for instance regarding the role of women), we run the risk of distorting the message. The problem is that we’ve severed the precept or principle from the immediate and the wider story. And this “loss of memory” impairs our spiritual imagination, which we so badly need. We become like the Alzheimer’s patient who, because he cannot remember his story, cannot project himself into a hopeful future.
So, for imagination we need memory. We need to remember the stories of old, the stories that form the basis of this very old, living community. We need the familiar stories, and the obscure ones; the easy ones and the perplexing ones. We need the scary, sobering (negative emotions) stories which help on an immediate basis. And we especially need the hope-filled, encouraging, comforting and inspiring (positive emotions) stories that fuel our imaginations for the long run.
Asaph was right, we simply can’t go wrong with reading,meditating on, telling and re-telling “the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done”. I think Dr. Schacter’s research confirms this ancient truth.
As a Christian, I feel reminded to take my Bible reading, including memorization, seriously.
As a teacher, I feel reminded to tell the stories of our God with the kind of amazement, curiosity, awe, humility and passion that is fitting.
As a brother in a very large family, I can’t wait to hear you, my brothers & sisters, tell me about the stories old and new of our amazing God.
I hope I never get too old to share and hear the stories with the ears and heart of a child.