Tuesday, April 21, 2009

History and Memory

human-brain-3So say you are an historian. Forget all the rhetoric about history being written by the winners. Forget the limitation of individual perspective. Consider that there is no actual location for the events stored in your brain. There is no cell in my brain for the first kiss or the first time I hit the ditch. There isn’t even a group of cells that you could point to as holding these events. Don’t forget that all that is up there is: chemicals passing between neurons carried by an electrical charge. Somehow out of all that some neural stimulation make it into what we call awareness (a bunch of stuff does not: the feeling of your socks on your feet rarely enters your awareness). That these neurons could produce this thing called awareness is mysterious enough but from that awareness some stimuli get preserved by (not in) the brain. If this information persists we call it memory.

What can we say so far? Your brain does not contain memories – it MAKES memories. The best theories of memory suggest that memory is an association of neurons firing in relatively the same way as when the original event occurred. The deal is that in order to pull up that vivid memory of your first kiss you gotta reconstruct the event – you rebuild it. By definition then the thing you remember is not the actual original event but your reconstruction of it which means of course that it is different (even if in small ways) than the original. Now this happens to be a fairly accurate process – one that we rely on pretty heavily (sometimes too heavily). That first kiss was with Charlene for me! It is not very likely that I will ever tell you Julianna was the first female with whom I passionately shared saliva. This good and keeps my relationship with Char pretty much locked up!

But what about the study that showed people two cars in an accident then they asked the observers this question: How fast were the vehicles going when they ______? (in the blank they substituted the words: crash. collided, bumped, hit, smashed). What they found was that the observers reported the cars as travelling up to 10 mph faster with the most graphic words like smashed than they did with words like bumped. People rebuilt the memory to accommodate the question they were asked. What does that tell us? That things can be (and often are) moulded to accommodate the conditions of a pre-existing state.

So you are historian right? You write down what you remember about a battle, a voyage, an encounter, a personality. What can we say about your account? Well since it was made up (constructed) we can tell you that it is not completely accurate with the original. We can also be confident that what you wrote is deeply affected by the conditions, biases and influences that you held at the time of writing it down. We seem to be pretty comfortable with this situation since we use it all the time.

I think it should makes us stop and think about what we mean when we say that something is reliable. Is BBC News actually more reliable than CNN or CBC? It can’t actually be more reliable since we know that each piece of reporting has taken an event and processed it through the neurons in their brain and reconstructed the event for us to read.

But what about Scripture? Does the idea that the Holy Spirit inspired scripture mean that a new level of reliability is achieved? Does that mean that the writers brains became putty in the hands of the Holy Spirit? Does it change the way we read and use Scripture if we say that human neurons functioned as they normally do in writing these texts? Interesting questions to be sure…

Let me know when your autobiography  is ready to go to print…

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