Memory in real life

In the wake of the SBL session on Memory and the Historical Jesus, a number of people have been posting about this issue, including Chris Keith – with a number of people including Jens Schröter getting involved on the Jesus Blog, and Michael Kok and others here and here. Unfortunately, the Jesus Blog comments have currently disappeared. I hope they can get them back again, because there were some really interesting contributions in them.

I am proposing to do some posts over the next little while to try to draw some links between psychological memory research and the work being done in the area of social memory. This first is more to set the scene than to address the links.

The question at issue in the SBL session seems to have been whether or not we can access the historical Jesus through the gospels, but I think that it is probably better to ask how much about the historical Jesus we can know through the gospels, assuming we are prepared to accept that there was an historical Jesus. As I believe I have said elsewhere, Robert McIver’s book Memory, Jesus, and the Synoptic Gospels (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011) provides the best coverage on the psychological literature about memory as it applies to the gospels that I have so far read, but I don’t agree with the conclusions he draws. If you want a shorter version or can’t get hold of the book, my article:  “How Accurate are Eyewitnesses? Bauckham and the Eyewitnesses in the Light of Psychological Research.” (JBL 129, no. 1 (2010): 177-97) and his response: “Eyewitnesses as Guarantors of the Accuracy of the Gospel Traditions in the Light of Psychological Research.” (JBL 131, no. 3 (2012): 529-46), are a good place to start.

McIver picks up on some research done in Canada which indicates that about 80% of what eyewitnesses remember of an event is accurate and says 80% is a lot  so we can be confident that the gospels are pretty reliable at the level of gist. He also cites research that indicates that when eyewitness testimony is inaccurate, the mistakes are things that are likely to have happened, rather than wild fabrications. I suppose this is helpful when confronted with people who suggest that the miracle stories are wild fabrications, but not if what you are looking for is a way to track Jesus’ actual words. It seems to me, though, that far more of the controversies within the church stem from people wanting to treat particular parts of the gospels as Jesus’ actual words and having problems with what appear to be accounts of the same events that vary on the level of fine detail than come from arguments about whether or not he really performed miracles.

If we have to accept that not every word is accurate, we want to be able to tell which bits are most likely to be inaccurate. The problem is that in order to be able to predict that, we need to have a very good knowledge not only of the social and cultural conditions at the time, but also quite a lot about the interests and life experience of the authors, and we just don’t have that knowledge.

Very few of us have eidetic, or photographic, memory. We tend to concentrate on the things that interest us or are important to us, and other details tend to be forgotten, but when we want to tell someone else about our experiences, if the telling of the story needs particular details in order to hang together well,  our minds will helpfully fill in lost ones with things that we know from past experience are likely to have happened. This isn’t a conscious action and it certainly isn’t an attempt to mislead the hearer and usually it’s harmless and undetectable because it’s only filling in tiny gaps with what the person telling the story’s unconscious thinks are irrelevant details – whether something happened on a Monday or a Tuesday, what coloured clothing they were wearing etc.

As memory fails with age, we are likely to substitute more details from what psychologists call schemas – information about what we normally do in particular situations. Things like our normal Monday routine, the route we normally take to the shops etc provide us with schemas. When something goes wrong with our neural processes, the gaps get bigger and the substitutions from schemas more pronounced until they become abnormal and the medical profession call them confabulations. Since my mother had her second stroke, there are significant gaps her memory and she often confabulates. My brothers and I can frequently pick up the confabulations faster than can the staff in the aged care facility where she lives, because when she tells them things that might conceivably have happened in the life of someone of her age and life experience they can only take them on face value. My brothers and I often know either that what she is describing simply didn’t happen or happened in an entirely different context. She isn’t trying to deceive anyone. She genuinely believes what she is telling us and it is believable. It’s just not true.

My brothers and I have special knowledge of my mother’s interests, experience and circumstances which make it much easier for us to separate truth from confabulation in our mother’s stories. The facility staff don’t. When it comes to the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, readers in the twenty-first century don’t even have the same level of ‘insider knowledge’ as the facility staff do of my mother. Our chances of being able to work out which believable details of the gospel accounts are accurate and which are not are very, very slim, even when we are pretty sure that some of them simply cannot be correct.

9 thoughts on “Memory in real life

  1. Pingback: Memory in real life (2) | Judy's research blog

  2. If I might, Judy, I’d like to add a little something here. It has to do with the accuracy of reported conversations. There’s a person in my family who typically relates events as stories, with a heavy dose of quoted conversations thrown in. One might assume that this is a person for whom conversations are important (which is true), and who thus would take care to recall such conversations accurately. But I happen to know that the latter often isn’t the case. I think this is a fairly universal trait (though not to the extreme), since I occasionally find myself tending to alter some remembered conversation – sometimes to include something I wanted to say at the time, or thought I should have said later – sometimes to make what the other person had said more dramatic or easily understandable. I think what it is is that we report conversations in order to make a point, and we tend to alter the report of the conversation in ways bigger or smaller, to fit the point.

    • Hi Mike, Yes, indeed. The research shows that this kind of things happens. The way we retell stories is heavily influenced by what we think will interest our audience and what we remember about an event is often the last way we told it to someone. This is part of the reason that a while down the track several eyewitnesses can tell significantly different accounts of the same event – they’ve retold them to different witnesses (but they have also remembered different things because different things have caught their attention).

  3. Question. What research has been done that would demonstrate that memory studies based on current cultural conditions – technology, less need to memorize, etc. (our Memory Culture) – has any correlation to the Memory Culture of the 2nd Temple Judaism of the first century?

    I have a hard time taking seriously that we can actually understand the Memory Culture of the 2nd century well enough to make some of the sweeping judgments I have read about.

    I suspect that if, as has been shown, our interactions with technology can actually physically rewire our brains, then there were some physical/brain manifestations related to memory/technology from the 1st Century that we have no clue about.

  4. Corby, you’re right about the effects of our technological age on the way we use memory! Of course, it’s totally impossible to do such research without a time machine. The best we can do is research with people in contemporary oral cultures and what are termed verbomotor cultures – those where some people are literate but the literacy rate is very low, and with cultures that have similar cultural norms to those of the first and second centuries CE. And yes, there has been work done in these contexts. Milman Parry and his student Alfred Bates Lord did some work with Slavic oral poets in the first half of the 20th century when recording equipment first became available so they could actually compare oral tradition over time. Parry was more interested in Homeric odes, but Lord has done work on New Testament texts as well. Walter Ong has done work on technologizing the word; Werner Kelber on orality and the New Testament, Kenneth E Bailey has done some writing on his experiences of living with middle eastern farmers over a number of decades (although he describes his personal experiences rather than having done conscious research, which one or two people have critiqued as an invalid approach). A range of scholars have built on this. I certainly try to take their findings seriously, but it’s a tad difficult to produce the necessary nuances when you are trying to keep posts down below 1,000 words (which is still a very long blog post). I plan to do a post on the effect of culture on community memory in the near future.

  5. Pingback: The Aftermath of “the Blow Up in Baltimore” | NEAR EMMAUS

  6. Pingback: Judy Redman on Memory | Euangelion Kata Markon

  7. I’m sure you address this elsewhere, Judy. However, this is the first thing of yours I’ve read (that I recall anyway). So I’ll mention that we have an additional complication(s) in terms of what is recorded of either social memory or potentially individual direct memories of Jesus’ original disciples. When Bauckham and others from similar paradigms of interpretation discuss “eyewitness” reports they generally believe (in his case, e.g., from hearing him speak once and a little of his work I’ve read) that at least some of the testimony was given directly by an eyewitness to a Gospel writer; at the least, by an authoritative rep. of the disciple group who would have good command of any “social memory”.

    After my several-decades-long, extensive study of the NT and Christian origins, I do not find reason to believe that (above) is probably the case…. At least we have no clear evidence that, for example, there was direct communication from Peter to Mark or that “Matthew” was one of the immediate disciples, nor “John”…. No real telling about Luke either, but no good positive evidence. Rather, especially if the more widely accepted dating of post-war times for all the Gospels’ written forms is correct, then we have to all the more weight the role of literary conventions and the expected (by the authors) effects of creating well-planned narratives. This alongside issues of functions of memory…. Movement to narrative forms introduces the matter of “devices” that were typical at the time, deliberate and purposeful story elements often with no basis in historical events, such as use of supernatural “events” to validate a message, etc. So far anyway, I haven’t found these relatively separate issues addressed within the complexity of understanding the Gospels in this “social memory” discussion, tho admittedly just started into it. (Note: suspecting that Matt. almost certainly made up stuff about a massive local earthquake opening graves from which “saints” arose and later walked around Jerusalem, etc., does NOT, to me, necessarily mean he [or other gospel writers] made up all the content we might now call “supernatural” such as healings.)

  8. Pingback: Memory in real life (3) | Judy's research blog

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