Mistaken Memories

Working on the subject of oral tradition has further exposed me to the fascinating field of psychology of memory. Not only is our memory of stories we’ve heard fallible, but our own memories of our own experiences are plagued by the same issues. And so even if Richard Bauckham is right about the importance of the ongoing presence of eyewitnesses in the earliest Christian community, this doesn’t serve as a magic wand that will suddenly allow historians to presume the accuracy of sources.

On the one hand, the existence of eyewitnesses who know the truth does not always prevent false rumors from circulating and being widely believed. On the other hand, even eyewitnesses do not therefore automatically remember accurately or preserve details.

This came to mind as I read a piece on the New Humanist blog about Neale Donald Walsch, a BeliefNet blogger who explained his plagiarism in terms of a story he read being internalized and remembered as his own experience. Now, it must be emphasized that I have no particular reason to think this isn’t merely an excuse. Indeed, Walsch seems to acknowledge that not only the gist of the story but the exact wording is the same, which is not compatible with his having heard or read the story a decade earlier and mistaken the story for a memory of his own experience. Precise extensive verbatim agreement wording indicates literary dependence, whether through direct copying from a written text, or through deliberate memorization of a written text. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of “cryptomnesia”, of mistakenly treating something one has heard as a memory of one’s own experience, is a documented psychological phenomenon.

Historical study deals with probabilities. There is never absolute certainty, even when we have eyewitness testimony. Imagine what the debates would be like if all those participating used appropriate qualifiers reflecting this uncertainty.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    This is SO true! And this is why even our understanding of history, being linear, as in God’s purposes, is misguided, as it absolutizes God…while it limits the Wisdom way of understanding experience, as cyclical…!!! God’s purposes are “ordained” by humans who create with God in leadership…of course there are things that happen that are beyond our control, and this is where theodicity is challenged….why not just admit that we don’t know…and be honest agnostics!!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14247799389009268470 James Pate

    Yeah, but God caused the writers to remember the events accurately. I’m sure THAT will convince the skeptics!

  • Pete

    I had two best friends in high school and we were on the cross county team together. One of them and me, while doing a routine warm up run, stopped at the house of an aquantence and knocked, and after waiting a few moments ran away. I’m not sure why this story was funny, maybe someone finally came to the door and saw us “fleeing”, I don’t know. But it was a funny story at the time which we joked about repeatedly. So much, even, that the third friend began to believe he was actually there. I don’t remember how long after the event it was, maybe a year or two, but he started telling the story like he was there, and he adamantly stuck to this fact no matter how stringently we asserted he was not in fact there. It was very strange.After having read several psychology books about memory; how your memories are distorted via how you first process them, how they evolve over time, and even how they appear differently depending on how you recall them, I don’t trust anyones stories any more.

  • http://tomverenna.wordpress.com Tom Verenna

    James,This is indeed quite a fascinating perspective. But it continues to assume historicity. While this may be true in regards to later traditions (i.e. the apocrypha, pseudepigrapha) it misappropriates the reality of the literary style of the Gospel of Mark (at the very least) as well as others. Perhaps some of this may resonate in some of the literature (once again, as traditions–not historical cores or memories), but there is no denying the imitation of earlier literary tropes, archetypes and motifs utilized by the authors to create narrative.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    Thinking on this more, memory is connected to experience(s) of some kind, and their meaning (as we interpret what we experience, read or watch). Therefore, the meaning can be understood differently by different people, as the words and actions are interpreted….but there is where other “witnesses” are necessary to verify an account of memory and even then, memory is partial (my husband and I experience this whenever we discuss a sermon or “talk”, as we have different things that perk our interest, etc.)….and many times, even in courts of law, it beomces a he said, she said, unless there is some evidence that proves the actual events, as they transpired…The important thing is to understand that meaning is an important aspect of understanding another person or a situation.Historical fact apart from perception does not exist. No One claims absolute fact, when telling a story, but the meaning of the story is important to catch… Truth, in this sense, is a personally understood one. How one have behaved or what one did toward another “proves” according to a certain paradigm of meaning, which is individually understood….but there will always be differences in what behavior is mandated to “prove truth”, and how other behavior is understood or misunderstood apart from the real meaning…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12617299120618867829 Angie Van De Merwe

    Thanks Tom. I agree! Very insightful!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/18317957766507630832 Dan Wilt

    This underscores our need to give nuanced answers, and to pose nuanced questions, in our dialogues about faith, experience and the living hope to which we cling.Adamancy has its place, but not in reflective and irenic discussions about worldviews that rely, in a long chain, on personal and corporate memory.Remembering, the best of current memory science suggests, is less a biological act of “retrieval” than it is an act of “creativity.”We recollect the snippets in our minds, and reassemble them as best it seems to us. This idea alone should cause us to humbly approach the act of remembering as more of a firm art than a hard science.


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