I was listening to NPR Sunday afternoon. They were doing an utterly fascinating piece on memory, and how we construct and tell the stories of our lives. I am completely bummed out that I can’t find a summary of the program anywhere on the NPR website, so I will recall what I can.
The gist of the story was that the more we re-tell a memory, the less accurate it tends to become, and the more removed it becomes from the actual event. Take a couple who shares a first kiss. Except for the first time one of them describes it, that person’s subsequent re-tellings of the first kiss are built, neurologically speaking, on the previous memory of the kiss, not the event itself! What this means is that if any details from the actual event are embellished, left out, or otherwise altered in the memory, they become imprinted and part of the event itself.
Elizabeth Loftus is a psychologist at UC-Irvine and UW who has done a lot of writing on memory and its “malleability”. She is particularly interested in applications to the legal system; a 2003 article she wrote in Nature begins as follows:
"The malleability of memory is becoming increasingly clear. Many influences can cause memories to change or even be created anew, including our imaginations and the leading questions or different recollections of others. The knowledge that we cannot rely on our memories, however compelling they might be, leads to questions about the validity of criminal convictions that are based largely on the testimony of victims or witnesses. Our scientific understanding of memory should be used to help the legal system to navigate this minefield."
Among other things, she has run experiments showing how easy it is to manipulate peoples’ memories, including implanting false memories of events that never took place. Subjects recounting those events, however, were firmly convinced that they had. Fascinating stuff, and much more that I plan to read up on.
Here’s what it got me thinking: I have heard the gospel stories about Jesus be defended as being historically accurate in several ways, including: because they were written by eye witnesses to the events; because they were written within the lifetimes of people who would be able to refute their truth (40-70 years after the fact) [thanks Heather for the correction]; because the written records of the events of Jesus’ life were merely formalizing what was a strong oral tradition at the time.
I don’t know much about oral tradition, though I have heard that it was a very serious discipline of exactly passing on a story, verbatim, from one person to another. (Does anyone know more about this?)
Loftus’s research seems to suggest that it is possible that, over the course of probably countless verbal re-tellings of the events of Jesus’ life, the “memories” could have changed and morphed, either by altering details of the story or even adding events that literally never happened.
Loftus is apparently quite a controversial figure – not everyone agrees with or likes her research. But hers is a pretty interesting research thread that could have implications for how much stock Christians put in the “eye witness account” defense of the gospels.