Dr Who as a test case for human memory?

I am not sure whether I am just verbose, but I started to respond to comments by Mark (Goodacre) and James (McGrath) to this post and it got very long, so I’ve moved it again.

Mark said:

McIver and Carroll appear to assume that the writing-up of a short-term memory of a single text in some way correlates to the evangelists’ use of oral traditions. What McIver and Carroll are comparing are different kinds of use of single-fixed text, not the difference between oral tradition and written text.

Indeed. I think their statistics are useful, but they’re application has problems.

And James replied:

I’ve tried to think of a situation or experiment that might allow for testing of a scenario more like that in early Christianity. Maybe we should get some volunteers to agree to watch Doctor Who, and try to remember what the Doctor says – without DVRing it and watching it again!

I know that James’ suggestion is presented as humour, but I think it is also a serious suggestion? I agree that we need to find a more “early Christianity” scenario, but it really is challenging, partly because we’re not absolutely sure what we’re trying to recreate.

I think there is no argument that Jesus’ audience didn’t take notes about what he said. I think it would be safe to say that it is almost certain that Jesus’ audiences discussed what they’d heard with co-witnesses and/or people who hadn’t been present. The discussion would reinforce memory, but could also change it. Both these things could be replicated with Dr Who (or Lost) audiences and we could argue that telling them that they would be required to remember what the Doctor says would help to correct for the fact that they will have memories that are less well trained for this kind of thing than were those of the early Christians.

What we don’t know about the people present is whether they just developed ways of remembering things or whether they had specific memory training. Even if they didn’t have specific training, I think that modern participants might need some, although I don’t know what.

What we can’t  easily replicate is Jesus’ effect on his hearers’ lives. Many of the people who heard him went because they thought he might have something helpful to say and it is almost certain that some of those who believed him changed how they thought and lived as a result. This would also have reinforced their memories in the longer term. Unfortunately, sane Dr Who fans are not likely to believe what he says and put it into practice in their lives. I’ve never seen Lost, but I suspect it is in the same category. Although I don’t have any evidence right at the moment, it seems logical that people are more likely to pay attention to (and therefore remember better) things that will affect their lives than to things that are just entertainment.

Maybe getting people who want to make a change in their lives for some reason to attend a talk given by a well-known expert and then tracking what they remembered might work better? As a long term member of a Human Research Ethics Committee, I am trying to work out how you might get ethics clearance for this kind of research, which would require some level of deception . . .

8 thoughts on “Dr Who as a test case for human memory?

  1. If the sources of these sayings were indeed disciples, who spent significant time with Jesus, hearing him give these stories, parables, and saying in a number of different contexts, that might have significant implications for their level of memorization.

    It might be more like getting fans to watch Dr. Who episodes over and over (with minor variations each time) and having them discuss the implications for their own lives and answer questions from the less informed hoi polloi between episodes.

    • I am rather fascinated that, although I have been saying for quite some time that Jesus would have taught some of the same things in many different places, the consequences for how they stayed in the memories of the disciples has only just hit me. Up to now I have focussed on the fact that this provides a possible explanation for variations between parallels other than redaction. Reading Ben’s response, though, I realised that it also means that the disciples may have come close to knowing at least the gist some of the stories by heart. They may well have been standing around saying to one another “So, what do you think he’s going to tell next – the pearl or the treasure?” and “Oh, no, not the mustard seed again!”

      • On a related point, this is the weakness with the Tom Wright / David Wenham point about Jesus having said the same thing on different occasions. Of course that in itslef is likely, but what is unlikely is that those different occasions each led to a separate track of tradition.

  2. Nice post, Judy! I liked James’s suggestion, facetious though it was, and I like this response of yours. As Ben hints here, there is still a problem, though, in that the watching of an episode of Doctor Who is still a reaction to a particular single “text” and it does not get to the issue of interaction with oral tradition in which the tradents themselves contribute, interpret, remember, retell.

    If we really wanted to push the analogies, perhaps we could talk about the fan groups as exercising a degree of control over the interpretation and memory of Doctor Who in a similar way to the literate tradents similarly exercising control over the interpretation of tradition. But perhaps that is pushing the analogy!

  3. Good point, Ben. And, yes, Mark, we are still responding to a particular single “text”.

    So, our model is that the oral tradition came from the memories of the disciples, who had heard the teachings a number of times in a number of places and doubtless discussed them amongst themselves as well as with other people. We probably therefore need people who have watched several episodes of a series several times. Or maybe we could get them to watch (several times) all the episodes featuring one particular enemy and then ask them to develop accounts of how the Doctor dealt with them? A Dalek-athon or Cyberman marathon?

    Of course, analysing the results would require a reasonably sophisticated quantitative analysis program.

  4. Yes, something like that. Actually, how about this: discussion of the *lost* episodes of Doctor Who from the 1960s? Here we can’t go back and watch them because they don’t exist any more. We could set up an experiment in which people are not even allowed to listen to the audio (which we do have). They can only interact with traditions of people who saw the episodes and discussed them with people across the years.

  5. Pingback: Consequences of multiple tellings of stories « Judy’s research blog

  6. Pingback: Found Link – Judy’s Research Blog – Doctor Who as a Test Case for Human Memory « « Coat of Many Colors Coat of Many Colors

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