Baker Academic

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Is Memory Selectivity Bad? - Le Donne

Here at the Jesus Blog, we're into hot topics from the 1930s. For instance we both have strong opinions about the dust bowl and don't get us started on the so-called "Hoover Dam." And we're not shy to point out that flappers are soooo 1920s. Whatevs! So it will come as no surprise that Chris and I have followed the career of French sociologist, Maurice Halbwachs with great interest.

Halbwachs (1877-1945) is now hailed as the father of "social memory" (although few social memory theorists today swallow his theories entire). Halbwachs believed that all memory is socially conditioned and framed. He also defined the sociological concept of "collective memory" in his study of how groups tend to remember and commemorate. Ah, the good ole days! But it has only been in the last decade that Halbwachs has been widely utilized in historical Jesus research. My own research built on his and extended it toward a concept called "memory distortion." In echo of Halbwachs many contemporary social memory theorists will grant that all memory is "memory distortion." After all, all memory is selective (by the way, memory selection is only one form of memory distortion). Memory requires the selection of thoughts and thought patterns that will not be forgotten. My own work has pushed this feature of memory back to the initial stages of perception. In short, to paraphrase Heidegger, to perceive is to construe.

But is this a problem?

We can easily come up with instances where memory selectivity is unfortunate or malicious. Indeed the very concept of "distortion" carries negative connotations. But recently I was reminded of why the selectivity of memory is so very important. This article relays a study of student recall. It seems that students who take notes longhand tend to remember better:
Students who take notes in longhand, in contrast, cannot write fast enough to get everything down and so must be selective. It is precisely that process—of summarizing, thinking about what’s most important, predicting what might be useful down the road—that helps those who take notes on paper.
These features of "summarizing, thinking about what’s most important, predicting what might be useful down the road" are all known well to researchers of memory distortion. Indeed all of the above focus memory and frames it within an agenda. Here the agenda involves making a grade. It is often the case, moreover, that students will be rewarded for taking something they heard in a lecture and transforming it into an original thought of their own. This process of creativity requires an ability to distort memory within acceptable parameters and account for their own ideas in relationship to previous thought patterns. I.e. the fact that students to not parrot their professor exactly is a virtue.

I think that this sort of research is fascinating and will continue to help Jesus scholars rethink the relationship between the Gospels and the historical Jesus.


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