Forgetting to remember: Dr Julia Shaw s The Memory Illusion


41knj6fq1dl-_ac_aa218_Julia Shaw, The Memory Illusion: Remembering, forgetting, and the science of false memory, London: Random House 2016,

288 pages paperback.

ISBN 9781847947628,

In the WA Public Library system.
New $30, Used $15 online. E-book $14.99.

Reviewed by Ted Witham

The science of false memory is the field of forensic psychologist Dr Julia Shaw’s research. As she discovers more about our unreliable memories, she also uncovers more about how our amazing memories work. Her work could be summarised by the statement that the very unreliability of our memories shows how adaptive the memory system is.

The Memory Illusion is written in an accessible style with many illustrative anecdotes and stories behind scientific discoveries.

Memories are made from networks of neurons. Strong pathways between neurons lay down the memory. Dr Shaw gives two reasons we should not, however, expect accuracy from our memories. The first is that our perception of the world in the first place is a kind of fiction, where we interpret some of the sense data received by our brain as a picture of the world. Secondly, every time we review our memory, we take the memory ‘out of storage’ and rework it, strengthening it with more detail or a slightly different story-line. The memories with which we do this strengthening become over time less and less accurate.

Dr Shaw reminds us of how childhood memories of the same event are remembered differently by family members. While we are sure we have remembered accurately, our siblings will often disagree. Research shows this dissonance to be the norm. At least one person’s memory has degraded over time!

From an opposite standpoint, some married couples reminisce over time and ‘construct’ a memory together, and so agree on its accuracy.

Chapters on false memory in child sexual abuse, in remembering where we were when 9/11 or other ‘flashbulb’ events are fascinating. I remember learning that JFK had been shot in 1964 in the Year 11 dormitory at my school. Someone had heard it on an illegal transistor radio. I am sure that’s right; but after reading The Memory Illusion, I would now need to check whether others present remembered the same event to have confidence in the accuracy of my own memory.

The advantages of our memory system, which seems set up to fail, is that it gives our brains great flexibility without brain overload.

Researchers have shown that brain games do not improve memory. The improvement that participants note is improvement in playing the game. These gains are not transferable. However, mnemonic training like memory palaces and techniques involving WEIRD do help memory by maximising the associative nature of memory. Shaw uses the example of ‘Do not think about pink elephants’ as a good example of WEIRD techniques. We automatically do the opposite of what we are told, that is, we hold pink elephants in our mind. Moreover, ‘pink elephants’ itself becomes a good way of remembering the principle of WEIRD in memory.

What can my baby boomer students of Latin and French learn from The Memory Illusion? They can take comfort that it is harder to remember things as you get older. They can associate new things to learn with things they already know. They can use repetition to strengthen these networks of association. And they can console themselves that synaptic pruning is an important process in memory, always creating possibilities for new learning however aged the learner!

 

Advent’s Four Last Things: HELL


HELL

To be trafficked, and forced to live and work where you have not chosen; this is hell. Your captor counts your value in dollars, not in your humanity, and so treats you with the indifference a bad tradie treats his tools.

To be in pain, constantly without end; this is hell. Pain holds your body prisoner and you are unable to live as you wish because of the pain.

To be abused, and to live with memories of abuse; this is hell. Someone you trusted violated you and treated you just like a willful child stomping on a toy.

In his Divine Comedy, Dante describes the descent through the circles of Hell (L’Inferno). In a region called Ptolomea are those who have been thrown deep into Hell for treachery to their guests. These are people who insinuate themselves in a position of trust and use that power to take advantage of their victims. Significantly, Dante believes that these people die at the moment of their crime; their body may live on, but their soul is thrown immediately to this bottom part of hell.

In the world of Dante’s poem, there’s justice in this punishment. The Australian churches now must allow justice to be dealt both to the perpetrators of sexual abuse, and also to those who, by action or inaction, covered up those crimes.

I want to give little oxygen here to perpetrators, however.

Rather, consider the hell of being a victim of abuse: the inability to trust; the devaluing of the self; the trauma of being violated, and the secondary, and sometimes worse, trauma of remembering it. There is a shocking trauma for those who recover a memory long repressed. There’s the ongoing trauma of flashbacks and dreams. Relationships take on extra challenges. Some victims become hypervigilant, expecting at every moment something bad to overtake them. Taken together, this is hell lived out in daily experience, like a young woman trafficked, or the person experiencing high levels of pain every day.

Is ‘victim’ the right word? Many prefer ‘survivor’. While a person remains without hope, then they are in hell: they are a victim of the violence done to them.

Being destroyed by abuse, or corroded by pain, or forcibly held become hell when the victim can see no way out. This person understands that their situation will go on unchanged for ever. It is hell, and one of the four last things: an ultimate reality.

Christian faith reveals God who can undo the final reality of death. Death, the end, is no longer the end. The God who has power to raise Jesus from the dead has power to release victims from hell. The person who believes there is a future becomes a survivor, literally, one who lives beyond.

Christian faith bears witness, in the hells which people experience, to the reality of hope. This is the key which unlocks the door of hell. Hope is the secret ingredient which explodes the murderous captors of this world.

We must believe in hell because it is part of people’s lived experience. We are invited, however, to grasp hope, because hope turns victims into survivors, and eventually into joyful survivors; hope destroys hell.

child
Joy!

Bishop Brian Macdonald: subito Santo?


Bishop Macdonald at the Citizenship Convention, Canberra, 1965. Photo: Courtesy National Library of Australia

If John Paul 2 can be made a saint, then I reckon Brian Macdonald can be made a saint too. Bishop Brian Macdonald was one of my heroes in the early years of my priesthood. I was fortunate to be in the same Deanery as the bishop in my eight years at Christ Church Grammar School and so we met up most months at Deanery meetings.

Bishop Macdonald had a quietly radiant and prayerful presence. He was not a man to use his rank to dominate. I remember his purple bishop’s shirt was blue rather than the usual scarlet, and I retain a strong positive regard for bishops with blue-purple shirts.

Like most spiritual leaders, he had something subversive about him. One day at a Deanery meeting, we were discussing something vitally important – legislation for Synod perhaps – when I heard him whispering to me, “St Francis didn’t write ‘The Prayer of St Francis’, you know.” When I eventually realised he was talking to me, I paid attention to what he was saying. Knowing my interest in all things Franciscan, he was having a gentle dig. “St Francis didn’t write ‘The Prayer of St Francis, you know.” I replied, “What do you mean, Bishop?” With a wicked smile, he repeated, “He didn’t write it, you know.”

I went home and researched the Peace Prayer and found that indeed, St Francis cannot have written the prayer that begins, “Make Me an Instrument of Your Peace.” It was written in only about 1912. I wondered why a Christian gentleman would take such pleasure in disillusioning me. Perhaps it was his delight in taking an interest in my spiritual journey.

Bishop Macdonald was in many ways a radical. At the Summer School of Perth Diocese one year, he claimed that Jesus had completely developed his feminine as well as his masculine nature. I know now that Bonaventure and other medieval theologians had taught similar ideas six centuries earlier, but to expound this notion for lay-people in the 1970s was a gentle shock. I learned that Jesus was a strong leader, willing to take the initiative, and to take his stand against evil. But equally, Jesus was nurturing, caring and intuitive, not afraid to express emotion and be vulnerable. Something like Bishop Macdonald himself. Masculine and feminine: a rounded human being.

Today, decades after the death of Bishop Macdonald, I was again reminded of the blue-shirted bishop when our diocesan bishop visited our parish. Bishop Allan Ewing wears a scarlet-purple shirt, so that’s not the point of connection.

Today is Easter V, and the Gospel is from John 14 with Jesus telling us, “In my Father’s house are many places.” Bishop Allan interpreted this to mean that there are for each of us places of safety and feeding for us now in the Kingdom as we live it out. It is not a promise for the future, but a statement for today.

Back in those Deanery meetings, Bishop Macdonald told us about trading caravans travelling back and forth across the Middle East, making 15 – 20 miles a day. Each night they needed a stopping place where there would be shelter, feed and water for the camels; a place to stop and sleep. The Greek word Jesus uses is “manoi” which does translate as “stopping places”. Jesus is stating, “In my Father’s caravan are many stopping places.” This is good news. And one man from those caravans rode ahead each day. He was called the dragoman. His role was to go ahead of the caravan and to make sure everything was ready at the stopping place. “I go ahead of you to prepare a place.” Jesus is the dragoman for us each day on our journey.

So I am grateful to Bishop Allan for recalling Bishop Macdonald for me, reminding me of his gentle humanity, his humour and his care for young priests. In a way, he continues to sit just out of view whispering encouragement and preparing the way for his fellow servants of the Kingdom. Thank God for him!