Friday, October 21, 2011

Link: Mockingbird: You can't put your arms around a memory, especially a false one

DZ links to a Jonah Lehrer article about false memories.

Humans are storytelling machines. We don’t passively perceive the world – we tell stories about it, translating the helter-skelter of events into tidy narratives. This is often a helpful habit, helping us make sense of mistakes, consider counterfactuals and extract a sense of meaning from the randomness of life.

But our love of stories comes with a serious side-effect: like all good narrators, we tend to forsake the facts when they interfere with the plot. We’re so addicted to the anecdote that we let the truth slip away until, eventually, those stories we tell again and again become exercises in pure fiction. Just the other day I learned that one of my cherished childhood tales – the time my older brother put hot peppers in my Chinese food while I was in the bathroom, thus scorching my young tongue – actually happened to my little sister. I’d stolen her trauma.

One of the things I have spent a good deal of my life thinking about is memory and how it alternately shapes us and is shaped by us.  It is in the realm of memory we often refuse to discover for ourselves that the heart is deceitful above all things.  I could imagine to myself my memory is formidable but there are limits to it.  Conversely, I have been told I have one of the most formidable memories of practically anyone a person has met (and this person had by that time met a lot of people) and that there are still gaps in it.

Joan Didion has written about how the quest for a sensible narrative frequently causes us to falsify our own histories and embrace things that are not really true.  Our personal and collective history can often be unwittingly revised and refined, reverse-engineered in light not of what happened or who we are but who we now imagine ourselves to be.  We can create the narrative of our lives up until this point in such a way as to justify our emotional and intellectual habits now rather than letting the past be what it was.

Conversion stories both illustrate the power of this capacity and how it can be both helpful and dangerous.  A conversion can lead one to describe truthfully how "I used to do X but now I do Y.  I used to do A but not I do B."  Yet in the annals of American evangelicalism an unexamined emotional script may exist (as Fearsome Tycoon alluded to so simply at the Boar's Head Tavern recently).  An American in the throes of evangelicalism who leaves that can construct a conversion story post-conversion in which all it took was some simple thing that flipped a switch.  "I used to be evangelical and then I found out evolution is true" is the most common one for the conversion of an evangelical into an atheist or simply someone who's not "evangelical" enough for other evangelicals.  "I used to be an unbeliever and then I read book X."  Is a common conversion narrative for many Christians.  The notion that conversion is actually a process taking years or even decades is easier to skim over. 

In the midst of seeking out the singular, transformative experience we can be prompted (yes, I chose that word strategically) by social conformity and an eagerness to please that puts us in a frame of mind and heart where we accept a narrative trope that is not actually true of us.  One of the most pernicious yet widespread examples of this was the recovered memory movement from the 1980s and 1990s.  It became easy for individuals to remember things that did not happen to them because they were prone to the power of suggestion.  It became possible to reconstruct a history that didn't exist through immersion in counseling or a social unit in which it was accepted that cathartic, transformative incidents that happened before your brain developed the capacity to form long-term memories or register their relational and emotional significance.  It became possible to remember things that never happened as a magical way to explain why you are who you are now.  To the extent that Joan Didion has written about this capacity in humanity I enjoy her work (and for various other reasons).

It has happened at different times over my life I'll remember things that other people don't recall but it has also happened that people have confidently explained things to me that have no connection to what I remember happening.  One person said something to me that was dismissive and demeaning and then had no memory of saying such a thing a few years later.  Well, of course.  :)  Another person is positive that they couldn't have said anything on the order of X to person Y because that couldn't have happened.  This person can't remember any number of things said to persons A, B, or C but out of a conviction that the person couldn't have said anything upsetting to Y the narrative of self does its work.

In other cases a person may remember a history that does not fit the history other people in a social unit remembers but which makes the most sense to the person telling the story.  The most public and conspicuous example of this I have ever seen is Mark Driscoll's cravenly self-exonerating description of why he took up the pen name William Wallace II and how he conducted himself during that period.  If you asked him personally or personally brought up the subject of what he wrote as William Wallace II he might cringe a bit and concede that there's whole periods of his ministry he'd like to forget because of how badly things went or how he behaved.  But in a book published for thousands or tens of thousands to read?  Well ... confidence becomes its own reward.  Mistakes were made ... but not by me.

But closer to home I could face the temptation to imagine that I was, in my love of the scriptures, "always" committed to this or that doctrine.  Or I could say that I embraced some doctrine I didn't.  For maybe half my life I grew up in an Arminian household and was Arminian.  It wasn't until I was got into college that I began the process of leaning toward a more Calvinist position and it was a slow and steady process.  It was not merely the abstract theological arguments, it was also a process of discussing the dynamics of human behavior with other people and, equally important, simply observing the limits of human control  At the risk of overstating things a bit, able-bodied people frequently default to the assumption that so and so is free.  Ecclesiastes warns young men to appreciate the days of their youth before the days come in which you say "I have no pleasure in them."  This is a warning, possibly, of a formerly able-bodied man to still abled-bodied men. 

Yet I could try to look back and imagine that what convinced me of Calvinism was "just the Bible".  No, not just the Bible, also observations about scientific research on cognitive development, the formation of memory, and the frequently exasperating capacity of the human mind to be enslaved to its own prejudices and methods of making sense of the world.  If you observe anyone with any compulsive or addictive or self-destructive behavior for a while, not least should you ever observe these capacities in yourself, it can inspire you to be cautious about just how certain you are of your personal narrative. 

One of the more troubling but necessary discoveries I made about myself in the last two years was about my approach to food.  I have not, honestly, given a whole lot of thought to food overall.  I have not obsessed about finding the perfect dietary/culinary formula which shall confer upon me optimal health.  Because I went through my childhood being the one person in the family who almost never complained about Mom's cooking I thought that I was a simple-minded fellow who didn't invest a whole lot of emotional significance into food itself.  Food was just food.  There were some foods I liked better than others but food was just something to eat.  The idea that I could have emotional eating cycles never entered my mind, they were unexamined.

Then an acquaintence of mine, in early 2010, made the news because she was murdered by a man who had been stalking her for years.  I spent time with one of my roommates who generously got me some Asian food and I ate the whole thing in one sitting.  It dawned on me that night that without previously realizing it I had gone much of my life having emotional eating cycles.  I suddenly realized that night what "comfort food" really meant and how it can be a health risk if it is not examined or restrained.  I suppose as far as comfort food goes spicy Korean style pork could be more healthy than, say, a pint of ice cream, but there's still that proverb, "Do you like honey?  Don't eat too much of it or it will make you sick." 

The story about myself and my approach to food that I had unknowingly told myself was the truth turned out to be false.  The heart is deceitful above all things and who can understand it?  Well, a mixture of Scripture and science has proven very helpful. 

The temptation, however, to revel in a story now about how things were then remains.  Fearsome Tycoon sounds like he's tackling an overview of how people have a narrative based on political affiliation that colors their understanding of policy.  In other words, Republicans imagine themselves to be backing a party that stands for small government, a lean federal budget, and a lack of intrusion into the lives of citizens.  None of this is necessarily true and in the case of, say, Reagan, any number of things can be disproven by reference to policy decisions made during the Reagan years.  But party affiliation guides narrative. 

As has been famously discussed in American history, if a person is from the South then an entire narrative of the Civil War is embraced which selectively eliminates documents, rhetoric, and views about race as being primary motivators for conflict.  The war is even considered the War of Northern Aggression rather than the American Civil War depending on where you live.  Conversely, a comparably falsifiable narrative emerges in the North about how altruistic the Union motives were.  In an adjacent state Douglas Wilson published Southern Slavery As it Was. I agree with Fearsome Tycoon's jibe that Wilson should write another follow-up volume entitled Jim Crow As it Was.

I've met people who have personal histories which have changed in the course of life.  I am unable to observe this in myself, though I suspect it has happened.  When someone you have known for years describes themselves as having never subscribed to a view ten years ago and simply avoiding objecting to it you cannot help but take notice when this year they talk as though they "always" held that view you remember they always disliked, particularly if you also talked about this subject with other people who know this person.  What has happened?  Is the person lying in saying that view A, which they never actually endorsed, was the view they always subscribed to before?  Well, no, but the "truth" being told is an emotional narrative rather than a focus on factual details. 

If a husband insults his wife four years ago and gets a rein on his tongue now then if his wife remarks on an insult now by appealing to a past the husband might say "But I never do that."  Well, kind of, but not really.  What we tell ourselves must be true about ourselves in the abstract or in the whole lets us overlook all of the details of daily life and how we actually relate to people.  This is how a person who is prone to say cutting or dismissive remarks about anyone and everyone on an hourly basis can look back over the week and simply believe that he or she didn't do anything other than speak the truth.    The truth was not really spoken, but the judgment of the person who, in hindsight, rationalizes what he or she said by deciding it was the truth.  Mistakes were made but not by me.  If I made mistakes it was only because I may have over-reacted to mistakes you don't know or don't wish to admit you're making.

One of the roles of prophetic books is to puncture the fraudulent narrative God's people are so easily and so often tempted to believe in.  This is vividly shown in Jesus' debate with Jewish experts in John 8.  They protest that Abraham is their father and we know where Jesus goes with that.  He destroys the narrative they have constructed for themselves by confronting them with an alternative narrative, one that lays bare the real drift of their hearts.When faced with Christ the most dangerous thing we can ever say is "I would never", whether we may be Peter denying that he would ever deny Him, or Pharisees saying they would never have persecuted the prophets. 

A great deal of the brokenness in our lives and the brokenness we bring to the lives of others emerges from the "I would never" we continually say while doing exactly those things we tell ourselves (and others) we would never do.  But, like Christ, other people can see our "I would never" isn't true, even when we don't.  Other people can see that the "I always" or "I didn't" in our imagined pasts didn't happen.  Or maybe they can't, because they, too, share a narrative in which the truth of events and words and actions is suppressed for the emotional script of "this is who I am."  Sometimes this narrative takes the form of "This is who I am in God/Christ/Jesus."  That is, in sum, why we need prophets but about this a great deal more has to be said that must be saved for some other time.

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