Friday, November 05, 2010

The Sins of Memory and Forgiveness

In his 2001 book How the Mind Forgets and Remembers Harvard professor Daniel L. Schacter draws upon neuroscientific and psychological analysis to describe the malfunctions of memory and point out how they can be both detrimental and advantageous. He categorizes them and names them quite cleverly the 'seven sins of memory':
  1. Transience: The first of three 'sins of omission', transience 'refers to a weakening or loss of memory over time.'
  2. Absent-mindedness: Less a fading and more of a misplacement of information, absent-mindedness is 'a breakdown at the interface between attention and memory' which quite simply is too distracted to file something away properly at the key moment. Even when all the attention is focussed on remembering later, the lack of attention when it was needed has left the memory irretrievable.
  3. Blocking: This is a problem of access to old, even well-worn information. You can't put the name to the face, even though you could yesterday, because something is blocking it; temporarily getting in the way.
  4. Misattribution: The first of four 'sins of commission', misattribution is remembering, but remembering incorrectly, particularly as it has to do with recalling the source of the information or the venue or date of the event.
  5. Suggestibility: A more twisted form of this, suggestibility, is when current information given about the past leads one to the immediate or eventual conflation of the learning of the information with the event itself. One thinks it happened just the way it was later said to have happened.
  6. Bias: This is when we 'edit or entirely rewrite previous experiences -- unknowingly or unconsciously -- in light of what we now know or believe.' The biased memory, even if it is in some sense truer, will say more about what we feel now than it does then.
  7. Persistence: These are the memories a person just cannot get rid of, no matter how hard they try. Persistence describes 'remembering what we cannot forget.'
Interestingly, although Schacter calls these 'transgressions', he resists a merely negative account of their function in human life. As he puts it: 'Rather than portraying them as inherent weaknesses or flaws in system design, I suggest that they provide a window on the adaptive strengths of memory. The seven sins allow us to appreciate why memory works as well as it does most of the time, and why it evolved the design that it has.'

The easiest positive function to illustrate is that of the 'memory sin' of persistence. Like Gandalf said in The Lord of the Rings: "The burned hand teaches best." Remembering trauma helps avoid it next time around and aids in seeking reparation. In this light we can see some advantage to bias as well. Innocent generalizations simply help us negotiate life. The stereotype of crocodiles reminds us to keep a safe distance. Even remembering ourselves better than we ought to remember ourselves can serve a positive function, causing us to actually live up to our slightly egocentric optimism, says Schacter.

Transience, though annoying, can also be positive. One does not need to remember where one put one's keys the time before last. One needs to remember this time. Blocking is positive for a similar reason. Looking for keys in this house one benefits from not recalling every house. Absent-mindedness is normally a positive function as well. Remembering everything the senses take in at every moment is an overwhelming prospect. We focus because we are finite: As Schacter says, 'less is sometimes more.'

Misattribution and suggestibility can have positive functions as well, even though they can be fairly problematic. Altering recall can actually be corrective. In other words, one might have remembered it wrong the first time! Later 'rewriting' can actually be re-righting. Or perhaps an event can be re-remembered according to a new interpretation of events. This might be false, naive, and pie-in-the-sky, or it could be healthy and true. How often does an over-reaction benefit from another perspective, so that the suggestibility or misattribution maturely places an event in context of its larger narrative?

Schacter proposes, therefore, that these memory 'sins' are evolutionary adaptations of one kind or another (e.g., 'exaptations' -- developed human skills like reading, or 'spandrels' -- flexible utilizations like using the space under the stairs as a closet) which ought to be considered for their positive possibilities as well as their negative ones. Which leads me to my question:

What is forgiveness if it is not one of the above?

A secular humanist might suggest that human forgiveness is a conscious appropriation of one of the above memory sins for some greater good. A Christian might believe forgiveness something more: A gift to humanity from heaven; a force for new creation and not a human capacity either evolved or designed. In either case, a number of things seem worth thinking about:
  • What makes a memory 'transgression' positive or negative?
  • Which of the above is most like forgiveness?
  • When Christians preach interpersonal forgiveness, are they talking about what Christ introduced into the world and commanded his followers to do or are they merely 'baptizing' a therapeutic memory strategy of some kind? What would be wrong with that?
  • Are any of the above creaturely capacities utilized in the redemptive gift of Christian forgiveness?
[Daniel Schacter, How the Mind Forgets and Remembers (London: Souvenir Press, 2001), 1-6,187,190-1,194,195-6]


the Doug said...

Great post Jon. I will be thinking about this for some time. I will add this thought to the mix. Perhaps it is these "sins" might be a reason why technology and social media are so attractive to many (if not most) of us. Computers don't forget. We can search our thoughts if they are archived in a blog. We can see an event in the past with the several hundred photos or video taken at the event with all our toys.

My desire would be to do better at remembering the things that I have learned. To not have to repeat those lessons.

Where does justice fit in interpersonal forgiveness? If I forgive you am I simply choosing not to hold on to my desire/right to see you come to justice? A one dimensional view of forgiveness perhaps...
Forgive the long comment.

Jon Coutts said...

that's not too long at all Doug. Happy to hear your thoughts on these matters.

The relation of justice to interpersonal forgiveness is a very important question. Very. (e.g., forgiveness may choose to "forget" a past event, or to choose not to bring it up, but is that choosing "untruth"? And what if others are involved, even indirectly? A rape-victim may forgive the perpetrator, but is this the best course of action when it may mean further victims, and of course further self-harm on the part of the perpetrator? Should forgiveness also seek some sort of restorative justice? Is it even forgiveness then?)

I think we want to remember the things we've learned, even the hard lessons, even if they are forgiven. But is that discontinuous with our having been forgiven by God? In other words, does the "suggestibility" of memory to rewrite memories of sin (in light of God's love for humanity in Christ, for instance) negate the "persistence" of memory to hold on to memories of sin (in order to prevent them in the future, for instance)?

These are perplexing questions you've raised for sure Doug, and that's exactly what I'm after here! So thanks.