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Posted by on Feb 12, 2014 in Psychology, Religion, Secularism, Skepticism, Teaching | 8 comments

The Reality of False Memories and Implications for the Accuracy of the Gospels

This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.

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The Reality of False Memories and Implications for the Accuracy of the Gospels by Dustin Belden

In my previous blog, I discussed false memories, and the different ways they could distort your reality.  Sometimes the distortion begins while the original event is still occurring, that is, while the memory is being encoded. As such, if the perception of an event is inaccurate, or the original encoding is inaccurate, then it cannot be remembered accurately.  An example is the eyewitness who is asked to accurately remember a crime; who may have seen the perpetrator only briefly, from a distance, in the dark, and while experiencing stress – all conditions that reduce their ability to see the perpetrator in the first place, which will in turn dramatically reduce their later ability to identify him or her.  False memories may also arise from inferences made during an event, or previous learning history. The witness to a crime is usually actively trying to figure out what is going on during the event, and uses prior knowledge to make sense of what is happening. Similarly, a reader actively interprets information while reading stories, interpreting simple statements like “Andrew went to the hospital” differently if they know the character is a doctor rather than if he had been sick previously in the narrative.  In both cases, applying knowledge changes what people remember.  The witness may later remember the robbery as more typical than it was, thanks to preconceived notions of what a “robbery” is, and the reader will misremember the passage to be consistent with the employment theme.  Humans are biased to extract meaning from events and this may lead to confusions about what was inferred versus what actually happened.

Memory is constructive and reconstructive.  Here’s a refresher on one of the most groundbreaking experiments on false memory, the Elizabeth Loftus car wreck experiment.  In Loftus’ prime study, participants were shown slides of a car accident involving various cars and were asked to describe what had happened as if they were eyewitnesses.  The participants were then asked how fast the cars were going, and were given different leading suggestions concerning the accident (the cars smashed, bumped, collided, and contacted.  The leading verbs directly coincided with how the participants answered the next question.  Loftus asked the question of whether the participants saw any broken glass at the accident.  The participants who were asked the “smashed” question thought the cars were going faster than those who were asked the “hit” question. The participants in the “smashed” condition reported the highest speeds, followed by “collided”, “bumped”, “hit”, and “contacted”.  People in the “smashed” group were more likely to report that they saw broken glass.  Loftus’s findings showed that leading the witness with certain verbs can change their memory of the events.

In Loftus’ study, one word completely changed the memory of participants in just one week.  Many participants in the “smashed” condition reported seeing broken glass, which wasn’t actually present.  One weeks time is all it took.  Imagine what could happen to the accuracy of memories after two words, three words, or an entire story is slanted; how accurate would things be after one month, one year, or one century?

This brings me to my point about how false memories could be related to religion.  In an attempt to unify the Roman church, St. Irenaeus declared the four books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John the only four gospels that Christians should read, out of up to 30 different gospel candidates that existed at the time.  These four gospels best fit the church’s view on how the Old Testament prophecies connected with the New Testament, and the Roman church.  Most religious scholars do believe that a man named Jesus was alive around the timeline commonly prescribed to his life (although there are several prominent scholars who hold that he was nothing but a myth), but most disagree on the historical accounts described in the bible with the exception of two events: the baptism by John the Baptist and the crucifixion by the order of Pontius Pilate.  Everything else, from the resurrection to the miracles to all of the words reportedly spoken, came from the account of these four stories that were written sometime between 65 and 95 A.D.  This means that, sometime between three and six decades after the life of Jesus, the account of his life was written.

There is no agreement if the gospels were actually written by the witnesses themselves, or those that might have known the witnesses, or others relying on third or fourth hand accounts.  Even if the witnesses themselves wrote the accounts, the work of Loftus and many others shows that the accounts are likely to be extremely unreliable.  If the accounts were written by associates, they wouldn’t even be admissible in a court of law today.  Knowledge about false memories, including how they occur and how common they are, has completely changed our legal system because evidence has shown that we have prosecuted the wrong people, based on eyewitness accounts that were given in by people that were sure of their validity.  No judge in the world would accept an eyewitness account from half a century ago, especially one that differed from dozens of other accounts (most of the gospel candidates were completely different from each other).

False memories don’t happen only to people with lower intelligence, or the illiterate, or poor memories; instead, anyone can fall victim to false memories.  One study, by psychologist Lawrence Patihis, tested whether there was a false memory difference in two participant groups, those with normal memory, and those with perfect autobiographical memory.  Surprisingly, the people with near perfect memory were just as susceptible to false memory as those with more normal memory.  This suggests that no matter whom you are, everyone is susceptible to memory distortion.  Your age doesn’t matter; neither does your race, your beliefs, or your intelligence.  All that matters is if you don’t take events for what they are, and instead make inferences or accept suggestions that other things are the cause.

Shift the understanding of false memories away from the Gospels now, and onto your present life.  A religious life is based on faith:  Having faith that God is looking over you and has his best interest in your life; that you can pray to him, and if your faith is strong enough, your prayers will be answered, and that living a biblically sound life will ensure that your faith will be rewarded.  But imagine just for a moment that you look at these beliefs in a slightly different way, applying what you know about false memories.  One out of one thousand prayers might come true.  Instead of thinking that event was a prayer being answered, what if you looked at it as only one out of one thousand things you wanted came true?  By inferring that the prayer was answered, you immediately change the way you remember the event, and accept that prayer as the cause of the outcome.  Having that memory changes your perception of everything thing else, and your faith becomes stronger.  Think back to when you were a child, and the question you asked about why does God let bad things happen to good people was answered with, “God works in mysterious ways”.  This encoding of memory allows you to accept everything as God’s work, and not question further.  I’m not interested in disproving religion or God in this post, there’s plenty of authors out there that do that.  But perceiving events as they actually occurred and remembering them as they happened, rather than through a distorted facade, is an important thing in being able to suss out reality from myth, truth from legend.

  • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

    Great post!

    • http://www.caleblack.com/ Caleb W. Lack

      Thanks Johno, he did a very nice job on this one.

      • http://www.skepticink.com/tippling/ Jonathan MS Pearce

        But his other ones are shit? That’s a bit harsh…

        • http://www.caleblack.com/ Caleb W. Lack

          Always so negative, JP…..

  • Void L. Walker

    Nice post. One of the reasons that I lost my faith was the numerous contradictions between the four synoptic gospels. Shining the light of recent scientific insights in memory upon the matter further invalidates it’s potential credence.

    • http://www.caleblack.com/ Caleb W. Lack

      It is pretty interesting to come at such issues not just from a “here’s how they are contradictory” standpoint, but also they “here’s WHY they are likely contradictory” view. Glad you enjoyed it!

      • Void L. Walker

        I’m new to Skeptic Ink, but Tippling Philosopher, Smilodon’s Retreat, and your blog are my faves :)

        • http://www.caleblack.com/ Caleb W. Lack

          Thanks! I’m still relatively new to this style of writing (most of my work before this was academic writing – articles, chapters, and books), but I’m really enjoying writing for a wider audience.

          ATP and SR are two of my favorites on the network as well – both are also written by pretty swell guys.