The Science of Memory and Our Expirences of God

Confession: one of my guilty pleasures is that I like to listen to Podcasts/videos that deconstruct conspiracy theories… especially if the hosts have a dry sense of humour. Reader please note, I am not a conspiracy theorist… anymore

One particular episode addressed conspiracies trying to explain the Mandela Effect, which is a phenomenon where a group of people share a collective false memory.

In the process of deconstructing the Mandela Effect conspiracies (everything from time travel, to quantum entanglement, and parallel universes colliding!) the hosts talked a bit about the science of memory.

Now, I am not an expert, so forgive me if I garble this, but supposedly, when we remember something, we are not remembering the event as it happens on say 1st June 1995. Instead, what we are actually recalling is our previous recollection of that event and the emotions and impressions we felt as we remembered it. And so the memory changes to one degree or another every time we bring it back from deep storage. I’ve probably not explained that very well.

There does seem to be some truth in this, for example, when I think of my wife walking down the aisle on our wedding day, the image I see in my mind is actually a photo we have in our wedding album. The same is true when I think about the day my sons were born.

This got me thinking… There is very much an experiential element to Christianity and every Christian has a story about a meaningful, personal experience of God. This might be a conversion story/testimony, an ecstatic experience, or even a meaningful sense of God’s presence on a particularly difficult day. In my pastoral experience, these events help people to trust in and affirm God’s promises towards his people in the Bible.

[TLDR]
However, what are we to make of our experiences of God if our memories are so plastic? Are the feelings and associations of the memories more important for a Christian than the details themselves? Or is this theory about the malleability of memories a load of old hooey?

Answers on postcards… by which I mean, in replies below.

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Absolutely. Which is why witness evidence is third rate, even when corroborated by a crowd. Perception is faulty, let alone memory.

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Yeah, one implication of false memory is that there might be a whole bunch of people serving prison sentences for crimes they never committed based on the evidence of witnesses who swore blind that they saw them do it. Makes ya think.

Editted to add…

I don’t need science to tell me what I can learn from rolling a perception check in Dungeons and Dragons :joy:

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Aye, and the witnesses aren’t lying. They were there. Saw, heard and felt. Attributed motivation. Without CCTV, phones and forensics it’s circumstantial and even then. And it’s the best we can do. We can ever do. The bandwidth for full on surveillance is only for the ruling class.

Sadly, memory is “so fragile” as one of my very brilliant library patrons once told me.
Or something like that, because my memory has always been fragile.
I was always astonished as a teen, listening to my mom and one of her sisters arguing about the details of some event from their childhood. “Really? That happened 50 years ago, when you were small children!” (My sister does this with me now. I tell her I just don’t remember.)

Even memories that seem “seared” in my mind, are when I examine them very closely, more of a memory of a memory, or an impression. That doesn’t mean that they’re not valid (I think) or valuable but that they are, as you said, plastic.
I think it’s essential that we not treat our memories or even minds as infallible. As disconcerting as it is, far fewer things are as certain as we would like them to be.

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or the severely traumatized.
Although there are probably also questions about the accuracy of hypervigilance as well.

As in when in intensive care or under maximum security?

This is huge in the U.S. Particularly in regard to phobia-targeted groups. Like Klax mentioned, without objective eletronic tools, and forensic evidence, anyone can be wrongfully convicted. Particularly if they belong to a group that is already in the crosshairs of public disdain.

Perhaps of interest:

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Now, I think I understand what you mean: state-exercised hypervigilence (of the institutionalized).

I was thinking about the psychological self-preservation tool called hypervigilence and specifically in conjunction with children who have suffered abuse, neglect, abandonment and even gone through adoption, but the causes are endless. (I think some figures exercising state-imposed hypervigilance are probably also exercising their own personal brand as a mechanism of self-preservation.)

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Indeed an interesting subject. In a nearby city a few decades ago, a childcare facility was run by a couple that went to prison after they were accused of sexual abuse of children in their care and satanic rituals and such. Later, it came out that the children’s interviews had planted false memories.
My wife and her two sisters often are in conflict over what happened in their childhood. As I grew up mostly alone having one brother 10 years older, no one can dispute my memories. But, as I look back, I can see things were probably a lot different than I remember them in some respects.
Interesting too, as my most vivid memories are of times of trauma or unpleasantness. Perhaps that is due to reliving them, or perhaps is an evolved adaptation to keep us out of similar bad situations, much like unpleasant tastes keep us from ingesting poisonous or spoiled food.

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Good question! Funny how you mention photographs – I love looking back at old photos of when I was a child or when my children were little. So often photos can trigger memories that otherwise may not have come up again, but perhaps they do get to almost replace the memories themselves. Our memories do seem suggestible, which might explain why gaslighting can be such an insidious form of manipulation, because someone can use the fact that none of our memories are perfect and exploit it to get someone to doubt their own basic sense of judgment.

I come out of a fairly fundamentalist Baptist background, and I wonder whether this idea of malleable memories could contribute to why many people I’ve heard from in that kind of worldview develop a degree of skepticism about “spiritual experiences.” And perhaps why clinging to “biblical inerrancy” is important also to sort of counteract our malleable minds (as it has been to me for most of my life).

It may stem from the idea that we are not reliable – we sin, we mistake our own thoughts for God’s, even if unintentionally, and we are carried away by our passions (James 1:14). Also, some communities can become echo chambers or may be more susceptible to a type of confirmation bias where we anticipate a certain kind of experience simply because others appear to be having it and we want to belong. And so clinging to a very narrow, unchangeable theology can feel safe because we can see it as something that will never change, as opposed to our variable experiences.

I hope that somehow there is a balance – a perspective that welcomes experiences with God but also understands that different people will have different ones, while also recognizing the need to hold onto someone that’s beyond our experiences.

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Reading and personal observations suggest that memories may change or be strengthened every time they are lift up. We add new memories all the time. Most slowly disappear. Some pop up later and get kind of second ‘stamp’ in the memory. With every ‘stamp’, we may add new information or a new interpretation of the observations to the memory. It seems that the newest ‘stamp’ may mask previous ones - we remember the previous ‘playback’ and interpretation of the memory rather than the original experience.

The flexibility of the memory seems to be greatest in young brains. In my country, only specially trained persons among the police may interview children that have experienced a potential crime. The reason for this is that incompetent interviews easily plant new ‘memories’ in the brains of children.

The most influential or traumatic experiences seem to put a stronger ‘stamp’ in the memory. We may remember details of these events for decades, although the interpretation of the observations may change. Miraculous (miracle-like) events often belong to this group because a miracle is something really special.

I am not an expert so I do not know if these are general rules or just my interpretation of observations.

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I agree. In many cases, a personal experience is what convinces a person that God is real and he cares. That is why Christians should guide people to Jesus rather than try to convince someone using our own rationale. Telling the basics of Christianity is needed and the use of brains in communication is highly recommendable but these do not necessarily convince a skeptic person.

I have read that dreams have been an influential experience in the life of many muslims. In the dreams, a person wearing white clothing meets them and they experience such love and peace that it changes their thinking. After that, many have started to search an answer to the question ‘who is that person?’. This search has led many to know Jesus. After this experience, the ‘normal’ doctrinal barriers between christianity and islam have not been a barrier to believe in Jesus as the way, truth and life.

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God is my home and feeds me fire burn in my spirit heart when I allow God teach me in the midst of my situations

God is my best friend who I can go to and I’ll feel an inner peace

I have many memories experiencing God and seen God’s light in people flood out of people while still in people

I have a relationship with God who lives in me

There’s times I block God and then I hunger for God., so in the midst of blocking I’ll allow God teach me how to allow., then the blocking becomes less and allowing becomes more

I still keep re-learning fire burn that God feeds me is spiritual food

Here’s scene: I was cornered and asked God what happened? God fed me fire burn in my spirit heart.

I asked God why feed me first and not tell me what happened?

God explain to me, that spiritual food is more important and God will be teaching me what happens more slowly

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I have a tangent question. You said you are not a conspiracy theorist…anymore.

Why not? What made the difference for you?

How do you know it is God? The Bible tells us that we have an adversary that is not looking out for our best interests.
 

…he is a liar and the father of lies.
John 8:44

…even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.
2 Corinthians 11:14

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