Monday, 14 November 2011

The role of memory

I can't remember what started my interest in this but . . .

. . . research into the science of memory has some interesting implications for the way the world seems to us.  It might also have implications about the claims that the New Testament is a true account of the life of Jesus, since by anyone's estimation it wasn't written down for decades after the events are claimed to have happened.

You might wonder what could possibly be the link.  Neuroscience is clearly a complex topic and experimental results are no doubt inconsistent at times, but I have been reading about some interesting research that has been going on for a couple of decades.

In experiments that I am too squeamish to describe, it has been discovered that a drug called 'muscimol' can actually inhibit the formation of memories. Muscimol is apparently a gamma-aminobutyric acid (GAMA) agonist - in other words it interferes with neural activity.  If the drug is administered to certain areas of the brain before an 'event', it can prevent rats from learning to be frightened of a musical tone.  On the other hand, administering the same drug after the learning event has no effect on the memory formation at all.

Although a long way from anything that is relevant to humans this finding is interesting in itself.  But it has an even more interesting aspect.

If the same drug is administered when a memory is recalled it actually seems to wipe the memory.  The implications of these findings could be very interesting, since they support other theories about memory.  It seems that memories are not stored and recalled in the same was as a computer retrieves files, immutable and permanent.  Instead, every time you remember something, your brain interprets it in the light of everything that has happened to you in the meantime, modifies the memory accordingly and then saves it again for the next time. 

There is also a lot of evidence that the memories that you consider to be the strongest are in fact the most unreliable.

Do you recognise this in your own experience?  I think I do.  When I tell the story of an event the first time I'm certain that it is less interesting than when I tell it for the fifth time.  Its not that I am making up the story or deliberately embellishing it.  But as time goes on, responding to the questions that people ask me about the story I know that I see different aspects and different perspectives.  I report the order of events slightly more interestingly in order to make it clearer to listeners.

Now anyone who reads this blog regularly will have spotted where I am heading to with this line of reasoning! 

I am increasingly skeptical about the historical truth of the accounts of the life of Jesus and it is obvious that there was a long period of time for people to 'improve' the story before it was finally committed to paper.  Some will claim that the oral tradition was stronger in days before people were literate, but that argument really doesn't fit with the evidence does it?  Even the four gospels that were chosen for inclusion in the New Testament are highly inconsistent, and the other deprecated gospels obviously make the differences even more obvious.

I think this neatly describes how the story of Jesus was innocently modified over the first few decades.  It doesn't need any of the deliberate machinations that are suggested by other commentators. More about those in the next post.


Pruthvi said...

This is shown very well in the episode fishsticks of southpark. Do watch it. super funny and awesome

Derby Sceptic said...

I believe this effect is often seen when testing recall of witnesses after they have seen an accident or a crime being committed.

A number of trials have demonstrated how unreliable memory can be in these instances and how it can be modified when the subject discusses what they have seen with others.

RosaRubicondior said...

I think there is a great deal in this. I know I have had very certain memories of a place or a film, only to find it's not actually what I remember.

I think I can remember a few events concerning my maternal grandfather who died in 1949 when I was three. I even 'remember' him looking into my pram.

I used to remember my first day at school 60 years ago. It's now just a vague memory but I can still 'see' myself going through the school gate with my two older sisters and standing in the playground.

But am I just remembering remembering these things? I really don't know. I have certainly recalled and re-stored these memories very many times.

One last thought on this. If we had perfect recall how could we tell the past from the present? How would we know we were (re)modelling an event in our minds rather than experiencing it for the first time? Maybe imperfect memory is beneficial.