Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (1) – memory distortion

Following on from my previous post, I want to look at Alan Kirk’s paper in the same edition of Early Christianity: ‘Cognition, Commemoration, and Tradition: Memory and the Historiography of Jesus Research” (vol 6, pp 280-310). Again, Kirk is not a blogger, but I’ve linked to his university page. The paper is fascinating, but the language is dense and deals at some depth with the psychological and neurobiological literature around cognition and memory, and he also quotes a significant amount of German literature in German – a not unreasonable thing to do in a journal published by a German company and which has German abstracts for all papers, but makes it heavier going.

Kirk begins by reminding us that there is a distinction between memory (what individuals remember about events) and tradition (what is handed down) and traces how tradition develops, with an emphasis on the neurobiological processes involved. He concludes that “We have been able to clarify where the historiographical challenges presented by the tradition lie, but these have little to do with the quality of eyewitness recollection.” (p 310) I think that the account he gives of the process is very useful, that his analysis of the significance of many of the facets of the process is insightful and helpful, but I want to suggest that what he has actually demonstrated is something different. In order to do so, I need to deal with the paper in some detail, so I am dividing my response into 3 posts.

Kirk begins with the concept of memory distortion and suggests that both sides of the historical Jesus debate now take for granted the fact that memory distortion occurs, with the more skeptical emphasising how much it contaminates fact and those who defend the tradition arguing for limitations on its effects. He points out that:

  • Psychological research into memory does not deal with real life situations because it asks participants to remember things that have no significance to them (like word lists) and deliberately tries to manipulate people into misremembering, thus exaggerating memory’s susceptibility to distortion (pp 289-291).
  • Although no two activations of a particular memory are exactly the same because neural activation of particular memories is driven by the immediate social context in which we remember it, most people are able to remember well. Thus, he contends, not all memories are necessarily distortions of events remembered (p 292).
  • Psychological memory distortion studies are mainly done in forensic (legal) situations where incidental details can be critical in determining guilt or innocence, so loss of detail can be critical and is taken as an indicator of the fragility of memory. In most other situations, he argues, what is important is the ability to determine what is worth remembering ie determining the salience of various details, rather than trying to keep track of all the detail. This involves subjective factors and makes remembering and recounting history much more complex than simply remembering a list of words by heart. (p 293-4)
  • ‘[R]emembering a significant past is an inherently relational activity’ which ‘…entails that it is under obligation to ethical norms, to the virtues of integrity, responsibility, and accountability to others’ and thus ‘…cannot be separated from its moral, existential significance for its rememberers’ (pp 294-5, emphasis Kirk’s). This, it seems to me, is a cognitive psychological explanation for Kenneth Bailey’s observation that community members in an oral society act to stop oral tradents from straying too far from what the community sees as the facts.

Thus, Kirk reiterates, but with neurobiological data as evidence, the fact that observers do not remember all the details of events that they have witnessed. This provides triangulation for previous work that looks at eyewitness testimony and human memory from psychological and social memory theory standpoints. His new contribution is in making the case that it is only in situations like that of a court-room that this is necessarily problematic. In other situations, discarding unnecessary information is a useful skill. It thus seems that he is arguing that it depends how one defines ‘accurate’ as to whether what is reproduced from people’s memories can be considered accurate.

It appears that the point he is trying to make (although he does not say this) is that the level of detail provided is not the same as the level of accuracy. For example, if I stop and ask for directions to get to 25 Smith Street, one person may tell me to drive the way I am headed and turn right into Brown Street and then left into Smith Street and number 25 will be in the second block on my left. Another may tell me that I need to keep heading south for two blocks and turn west into Brown Street, which has a McDonalds on the corner, then keep heading west for two blocks and turn south into Smith Street and that I will find number 25, which is a two-storey white house, two blocks down on my left. Both these sets of directions will get me to the same place, so they are arguably both accurate, although the second one is more detailed. Despite the extra detail, I would find it less helpful because I am not at all good at determining compass points when I am driving, so the first one would probably get me to my destination more effectively.

Kirk is, however, more interested in the material that we have available to us – the tradition – than he is in individual memories, and it is to the tradition that he turns next.

(continued in part 2)

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (1) – memory distortion

  1. Pingback: Alan Kirk on Cognition, Commemoration and Tradition (3) – memory, tradition & historiography | Judy's research blog

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