Thursday, November 17, 2016

I Remember the Memory Wars

So, here's an interesting piece on Repressed Memory Syndrome, and the evidence that 'repressed' memories are all-too-often false memories (that is, that the process designed to recover lost memories creates the memories it's trying to find).  A major figure in that fray has just won a major award, the John Maddox Prize, given to scientists who stand their ground in the face of outside pressure.

My take on this would be that every genealogist knows that people get things mixed up; that things  you'd think everyone would remember get lost while some things get handed down in surprising detail (for example, in my family there are two distinct versions of the story how my great-grandfather died on his way to church,  an event that took place a hundred and two years ago).*

The mutability of memory also came up in Gerald Posner's book on the Kennedy assassination, CASE CLOSED (1993), in which he discusses at one point how witnesses' memories of the event has changed over time.

As an Inklings scholar, of particular interest to me is the collecting, sifting, and evaluating evidence regarding literary events. When did the Inklings first begin to meet? When did Tolkien start THE HOBBIT?  When did he finish the earliest draft? When witnesses disagree -- for example, Fr. John and Michael Tolkien directly contradict JRRT's accounts of THE HOBBIT's origins -- how do we decide which is more accurate? When we have evidence that comes from an unreliable source, do we ignore it entirely or use it with caution?

So, it behooves us to have an awareness of the tricks memory plays. I know I have to watch out myself when quoting something somebody told me decades ago. Stories evolve over time, and it's all too easy to embellish and 'improve' a story if you're not careful.

--John R.
just abandoned: FARHENHEIT FOUR FIFTY-ONE (half-way through). doesn't hold up well on re-reading, all these years later.

*The solution I used was to write down all the information I could when interviewing someone about this or that side of the family, then go back and sort it all out later as best I cd.


Ed Pierce said...

Early on in the book "The Birth of Christianity" (starting on p.62, Google books tells me) John Dominic Crossan discusses some of the more recent studies on memory, and how our brains can change our recollection of events over time, especially when the memory involved a traumatic event. He recounts that in 1986 after the Challenger explosion, around 100 students at Emory University were asked to fill out questionnaires less than 24 hours after the event, asking what they were doing (and where) when they heard the news about the explosion. The answers were then sealed. Two and a half years later, around half of the students who had filled out the original questionnaire were asked to to do it again. What they found was that in a high percentage of cases the recollections at the later date were quite different (in regard to place, time, activity, etc.) than what was first reported immediately after the event. That wasn't too surprising, but what was interesting was that when the students were asked to assess their confidence level that their later memory was correct, there was no correlation between confidence level and the actual accuracy of the memory. Those whose memories were widely divergent from the original questionnaire had a high degree of confidence that the later memory was accurate. When many of the students were shown what they had originally written, they continued to insist that the later memory was the correct one.

Wurmbrand said...

An interesting topic with, certainly, much importance for Inklings studies, not only on the biographical side, but also because memory itself is a theme in Tolkien's fantasy (cf. Rivendell, the Ents, so much more; the wanderer's memories in "The Sea-Bell") and, as I recall, in Lewis's That Hideous Strength -- for both Mark and Jane, remembering is an important component in their extrication from their respective predicaments- -- also in The Silver Chair, with the children's and Puddleglum's memories of the surface of the world when they have sojourned in the Underworld. To name a few!

Not sure memory is an important theme in Charles Williams's writings, though.

Dale Nelson

John D. Rateliff said...

The idea of memories changing over time lies at the root of Verlyn Flieger's short story "THE GREEN HILL COUNTRY" in which several hobbits tell each other garbled versions of the events of The War of the Ring a century or more before. It's funny and heartbreaking by turns. Highly recommended.

--John R.