Human Memory: Vivid Doesn’t Mean Accurate

Human Memory: Vivid Doesn’t Mean Accurate September 25, 2013

Apologist Frank Turek gives the 9/11 attack as an example of a vivid memory. Can you remember where you were and what you were doing on September 11, 2001? How about the same date a year earlier? Why is one date memorable and the other not? And what does this tell us about the accuracy of the gospel record of the remarkable life of Jesus?

Important events impress themselves on our memories, but there’s a big difference between a vivid memory and an accurate one. “This American Life” provided a great example a few weeks ago of how our memories fool us—a startling example, in fact. Let me briefly summarize it.

Emir’s story

Emir Kamenica was born in Bosnia in 1978. Yugoslavia began to unravel when he was 13. Though his father was killed, the rest of the family was lucky to get out of the war and make it as refugees to Atlanta.

Their new life was no paradise. Their apartment was dirty, and Emir made no friends. He was one of a couple of dozen white kids out of 900 in his high school. He felt the racial tension both in his neighborhood and his school. His English was terrible, and he practiced by translating passages from his favorite book, The Fortress, into English.

The one bright light in his school experience was Miss Ames, a student teacher in his English class for only a couple of weeks.

For one assignment in her class, Emir took a shortcut by submitting a translated passage from The Fortress that he found especially moving. The book was in Bosnian—who would find out? Miss Ames was impressed and said that he needed to get to a better school. By good fortune, she had a job interview at a local private school in a few days, and she took him along.

To Emir, the school was paradise. He had practiced a short line: “I’m a Bosnian refuge. My school is really bad. Please, can I go here?” For her own interview, Miss Ames had brought his essay as an example of what inspired her to be a teacher.

Though student applications were due months earlier and financial aid for that year was already arranged, the school highly valued diversity, and a Bosnia refugee would be a nice addition to the student body. Strings were pulled, and Emir made it in. After graduating there, he went on to Harvard as an undergrad. Then he earned a PhD from Harvard. And now, at 35, he’s a professor of Behavioral Economics at the University of Chicago.

This Bosnian refugee became a success all because one teacher took the time to help him out, fooled by his plagiarized essay. She mistook him for a genius and got him into a private school, which got him into Harvard, which launched a successful academic career.

This was Emir’s defining story, and he told it over and over. He contrasted it with that of his one friend from public school, a fellow Bosnian, who had no guardian angel. The friend got into trouble, spent time in jail, and went back to Bosnia.

Miss Ames didn’t get the job, and Emir never saw her again. As an adult, he tried to find her a couple of times, without success. He didn’t know her first name and wasn’t even sure of the spelling of her last name.

… the other side of the story

“This American Life” hired a private detective and found Miss Ames. Her version of the story was … different.

She had been a new teacher but wasn’t an intern. In fact, she had been Emir’s full-time teacher for an entire semester. His English was “tremendous,” and, in talking to his other teachers, Miss Ames realized that this sophomore was beyond senior level in all subjects.

She also disagreed about the character of the school. It wasn’t a ghetto school but had a great mix of students, like a teenage UN. She remembered about 20% white kids (later confirmed by fact checking).

And the essay that Emir plagiarized, the central fact to Emir’s story? She didn’t even remember it. It played no role in her decision to push him into the private school.

Emir never saw Miss Ames at the new school, not because she didn’t get the job, but because that trip had never been for a job interview. It had all been for him.

After Emir, Miss Ames’ story took a bad turn. The school administration was annoyed that she had poached their prize pupil, and they exiled her to whatever amounted to Siberia in that school district. After another year, she quit teaching.

(I’ve written more about our fallible brains here.)

The punch line of her story was that Emir had been any teacher’s once-in-a-lifetime student. He could’ve still gotten a great education if he’d stayed at that public high school, been at the top of his class at a good regional college, and then gone to Harvard for the PhD. After leaving Atlanta, she didn’t keep track of his career except by looking for his name in the Nobel Prize list every year.

For both people, but Emir in particular, these stories weren’t incidental but were important stories in their lives. His story was of plagiarism, luck, and a guardian angel. Her story was of innate gifts, inevitability, and martyrdom.

That doesn’t mean that Emir’s story wasn’t vivid–it was. It also doesn’t prove that it was false. What it proves is that at least one story was false.

A vivid memory may not be an accurate one. Remember that the next time someone points to the gospels and insists that so remarkable a story as the resurrection must’ve been remembered accurately despite the long decades from events to first writing.

A church steeple with a lightning rod on top
shows a total lack of confidence.
— Doug McLeod

Photo credit: Joaquin Villaverde

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