Tuesday, December 17, 2013

History, memory, and reconsolidation

A great discussion this morning on On Point with Jay Parini got me thinking about human memory and what I have learned recently about re-consolidation of episodic memory.

The topic of the show was the history, mythology, and religion surrounding our knowledge of who Jesus really was.  There is a lot there, so I am just going to focus on one piece.  The Gospels were written 20-40 years or so after the events occurred.  The recent anniversary of JFK's assassination and the death of Nelson Mandela provide some good modern analogies.  Out of everything you heard last month about JFK and last week about Mandela, how much of it was perfectly true, patently false, or totally ambiguous?  I think a lot of it falls into that latter category. 

Here is where re-consolidation comes in. Every time we recall a memory (for example of JFK's actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis or Mandela's actions to give the black South African's the vote), the memory gets reframed in the context of our current situation.  This is not intentional nor is it a good or bad thing, it is just a function of the way the hippocampus and frontal cortex are wired together.  They are using this phenomenon to treat PTSD by having soldiers recall painful experiences in an environment where they feel peaceful and safe.  The two feelings get mixed together and the memory becomes less painful. 

We can do the same thing with details surrounding a memory.  Imagine yourself running around the playground when you were in grade school.  You are either remembering a photo of yourself at that age or you are imagining what you currently look like only shorter.  This second option is reconsolidation.

So what does this have to do with Jesus, JFK, and Mandela?  With the cold war over, we can think of JFK's decisions in a much more positive light.  With Mandela's subsequent leadership of South Africa, we can do the same thing with his earlier terrorist activities.  I saw a lot of this reframing going on in the past months.  The same thing most likely happened with all historical figures, including Jesus.  Those days were very exciting to say the least.  There was chaos in much of the Middle East.  The various sects that were splintering off the mainstream Jews were looking for messiahs.  In those 20-40 years, a lot happened that would have affected how Jesus the historical figure was seen. 

So no matter what you think of his religious identity, everyone who remembered him would have a very different perspective depending on their frame of reference 40 years later.  Even if Jesus was divine, the people remembering him were most definitely human and had brains wired for reconsolidation.  Their memories could not be anything other than blended, muddled, mixes of actual memories, imagined memories, and current ideas.  Contradictions in the Gospels is not evidence of lying, cheating, or exaggerating, just reconsolidation at work.  Not much help when trying to decide what to believe.

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