When I was about 3 or 4 years old, my family was in a boating accident. The sky was blue with small fluffy clouds. It was a warm, peaceful day. We were in a row boat, and our dog Pepper was in the boat with us. I remember sitting in the boat, enjoying the warm day. Then I remember a brief glimpse of being in the water and a lot of confusion. Then I remember sitting on the grassy bank watching our capsized boat floating away along with our things that had been in the boat (packages of garments my parents had bought, I think). I vividly remember sitting on the grass thinking, “I’m OK. Nothing can hurt me. Things just always work out for me.”
A few years ago, I was talking about this family memory with my sister who is seven years older than me. She said she remembered being panicked and soaking wet, and when she got back to shore, she was shivering and freezing cold. She said she remembers thinking, “Life is so unfair. Why do bad things always happen to me?” I told her my memory, and she quickly denied that was what happened. She said, “You were screaming your head off. You weren’t calm at all.”
I thought it was interesting how different this experience had been for me at 3 or 4 years old vs. my sister at 10 or 11 years old. Certainly, it seemed plausible that I might feel more protected. Family members probably rallied to save me, whereas maybe she was expected to be more self-sufficient. I decided to tell my mother about how differently the two of us remembered that incident and how odd memory could be. Her reaction completely floored me. My mother said, slowly and chillingly, “Your sister wasn’t even there.”
So what is true? Is the truth even knowable at this point? What emerged from this incident for each of us was a narrative, one that matches other narratives we have about our lives, our situations, and even ourselves. Studies have shown that memory is extremely unreliable for several key reasons:
- Our initial accounts are missing data. As you can tell from my memory of the boating accident, my memory is more like a series of snapshots than a movie. There are gaps in what I can remember. How did the accident happen? How long was I in the water? Who was there? How did I get out of the water? The stakes were high; this was a life or death situation. I could have easily drowned that day. So, why is such an important memory not burned clearly into my mind? Eyewitnesses are actually very unreliable. Some colleges perform an experiment in which, midway through the lecture, an intruder enters the room and commits a crime in front of the auditorium of students. Later interviews with students reveal that the most accurate eyewitnesses only get 80% of relevant details correct. Many only get between 20 and 25% of details correct.
- We fill in the gaps of memory to give our narratives continuity. This is called “confabulation” or, in layman’s terms, making stuff up. We get better at this the longer we live. Truth be told, most of our memories, if examined closely, are made of “snapshots” with confabulation to fill in the gaps.
- We ignore what doesn’t jibe with our beliefs. This is also called confirmation bias, and it’s one reason that eyewitness accounts can be unreliable. Consider a memory of a failed relationship. Suddenly, things you ignored or didn’t think were important come to the forefront with your knowledge that the relationship didn’t work out. With the benefit of hindsight, you now see signs that it wasn’t going to work out. Spouses whose partners cheated suddenly remember details that were out of step with their belief that everything was going well.
- We overwrite our memories to make them conform with our current views. An interesting study was done over the course of a decade. In 1974, a group of people who had strong political convictions were interviewed about their political views. Ten years later, the same people were interviewed about their political views, including questions about how they had viewed things ten years earlier. As their views had shifted, radically in some cases, so did their memory of what their views had been ten years earlier. They actually remembered things differently based on their changed ideologies, and they were no longer capable of believing that they had really believed those opposing views.
Knowing that these things are true of memory, what does that imply for:
- history (including church history)
- scripture (the earliest NT writings are from 40 years after Christ’s death, for example)
- testimonies (often including faith promoting memories)
- conversion stories (ours or others’, even those recorded in scripture)
- family stories (stories that are supposed to reveal the family’s virtues or common characteristics, usually)
- personal memories (even the things we consider to be facts based on our own memories)
Does this give you pause?
And yet, personal narrative is integral to Mormonism. We get up monthly to share personal stories that confirm our beliefs in God, the church and in the LDS worldview. Understanding how memory works doesn’t necessarily make these stories irrelevant, just relevant in a different way. They reduce the value of testimony as “proof” or “evidence” (at least by adding a lot of qualifiers), but they do spin it as personal narrative about us as individuals, our beliefs, our wishes and desires, and our spiritual quest at a given time. IOW, testimony, even faith affirming stories, always reveal our current views more accurately than they capture what actually happened. As you consider the changes to JS’s retelling of the first vision, this explanation illustrates why the narrative and conclusions were also subject to change over time. In a very real sense, we don’t understand what happened until we have the benefit of hindsight and can see it more clearly. And by then we still don’t understand what actually happened, only what we believe it means.