Flawed Memory

Elizabeth Loftus at TAM 9 (2011)Eyewitness testimony – for all Ken Ham’s shouts of “were you there?” – is the worst variety of evidence. Adding to its many problems you might have recently read about the successful implantation of a false memory of an unpleasant experience into the brain of a mouse. Slightly less recently Nature ran a story on the career of Elizabeth Loftus, who has long argued that memory is fallible. That earlier article appears to have prompted Wednesdays DpSU, Did God Make Human Memory Malleable?, by Brian Thomas.

Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has shown that human memories are malleable. She successfully planted false memories into people’s minds during some of her experiments. Her position on the fallibility of memory has not always been well-received, but the results speak for themselves. And this may cause the believer in Christ to ask: Did God design memories to be moldable?


After explaining Loftus’ work in the legal system, noting that New Jersey now tells its jurors that memory “is not like a video recording,” and mentioning that UK mentalist Derren Brown is supposedly able to “erase certain events from [people’s] recollection,” Thomas asks:

When and why did memories become malleable? Is it reasonable to attribute apparent imperfections—like memory being vulnerable to distortion or contamination—to God’s creative acts? Not necessarily. The effects of sin’s curse on the universe apparently reach into the mind of man. In other words, it’s likely that memory’s fallibility was not what God originally produced in his first man, Adam.

Let’s return to that mouse, however. The creation of false memories is not in and of itself amazing, at least not these days. What they did that was special was causing an association between an unpleasant experience (mild electric shocks) encountered in one room with the memory of another via directly stimulating the cells that carried the memory of the safe room when the mouse was exploring the room in which it had been shocked. Memory is not like a video recording, and its also not stored in the same way either: so far as we can tell there is not a case of individual cells storing packets of data, but of a delocalised network that somehow encodes (if that’s even the right word) the memory. This setup can of course malfunction, or be deliberately mislead. In other words, it’s likely that memory’s fallibility is an inherent property of how it is stored and recollected – if it were not “malleable” in this way it might not even be able to function at all.

Of course, I’m not neuroscientist, and neither is Thomas. But there’s more to his article then that. Here’s his example of how smart Adam was:

After all, the fact that, in just one afternoon Adam named many basic creature kinds, including birds, beasts, and creeping animals, implies excellent recall. Today, only a few of us can claim to have even traces of a similar eidetic (visual) memory.

He adds a footnote:

“It would be possible for him to name about three thousand of the basic kinds of these animals in about five hours (one every six seconds), and this would be adequate both to acquaint Adam with those animals and also to show clearly that there were none who were sufficiently like him to provide companionship for him.” Morris, H. 2006. Genesis 2:19 the name thereof. New Defender’s Study Bible. Posted on icr.org, accessed August 21, 2013.

Perhaps luckily for Adam, the New Defender’s Study Bible quote begins by saying that “The animals named by Adam included only birds, domesticable animals, and the smaller wild animals that would live near him.” (It also concludes “This is still further proof that man did not evolve from any of the animals, even those that were most directly associated with him.”) This prevents the situation where many of those six seconds would be things like “this-is-a-leafcutter-ant-but-it’s-slightly-different-to-the-previous-one-so-I’ll-call-it-Susan-instead-and-no-I-don’t-want-to-marry-it-either,” as the Tomkins story from last week would suggest.

Still, that’s a very strange thing to happen even if we’re only considering sheep vs goats (vs velociraptors). The biblical passage is of course Genesis 2:19-20, which says (in the King James Version):

2:19 And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
2:20 And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found an help meet for him.

To most people this would be taken to mean that people need other people, and that we should classify and study the animals – not that what is described actually happened. To the literalists, however, this means that several thousand different animals formed an orderly queue for one man to name them (and speed date them? Morris argues that God was only showing Adam that there was no wife for him amongst them, but this only contorts the story further) at a rate of one every few seconds. Isn’t literalism fun?

We are, however, off topic. To recap, Thomas thinks that Adam had perfect recall, as exemplified in his ability to name thousands of animals continuously as they were paraded in front of him (was he there?), while the poor memory skills we see today are just proof that we have degenerated. We may have to wait and see what neuroscience discovers about the mechanisms that underlie memory to know just how feasible that feat really is.

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3 thoughts on “Flawed Memory

  1. I think the point you made in the first sentence can’t be overstated. Many who want to believe a literalist interpretation are happy to trump forensics with “eyewitness accounts.”

  2. I like the way they ignore any implications the fact of fallible memory has for things like the gospels, which were written at least a decade after the events if not more. They don’t even give a hat tip to the idea god preserved their memories for the gospels

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