- Transience: The first of three 'sins of omission', transience 'refers to a weakening or loss of memory over time.'
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.'
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?