28 April 2015

Oh Say, Where Is Truth? Part 2: Do We “Remember It Well?”

Part 1 of this trilogy of posts about truth posited that fiction could sometimes be more “truthful” than non-fiction. This follow-up post deals with the challenge of finding truth in memories.

When faced with conflicting memories of our past, my husband and I often smiled as we quoted the opening lines from a duet “I Remember it Well.” They epitomize the tendency to we have to believe that we personally remember things correctly, even when faced with evidence that others remember the same events quite differently.

               We met at nine.
                        We met at eight.
 I was on time.
                        No, you were late.
Ah yes! I remember it well[1]

We all tend to believe that we remember things correctly, and often misunderstandings arise when people disagree about what “really” happened. But psychologists have discovered that our minds definitely can be fooled.

Elizabeth Loftus, a an American cognitive psychologist and expert on human memory who did considerable research into the phenomenon of false memories, stated in 1996, “In the last two decades, a body of research has been published showing that new, post-event information often becomes incorporated into memory, supplementing and altering a person's recollection. New ‘information’ invades us, like a Trojan horse, precisely because we do not detect its influence.”[2]

Laying aside the possibility of deliberate deception, we can expect that many of the recollections of past events recorded by believing members of the LDS church could have been distorted over time because of subsequent events. 

In my experience, even journal entries written at the end of the day are subject to error. I remember the time I was emailing a friend, and when I quoted a humorous remark of my husband’s, I realized that even though only a few hours had passed, I wasn’t sure I remembered his precise phrasing. I had concentrated more on the emotional boost his words had given me, the truth I perceived in the concept he communicated to me, than his exact words. However, although in this instance I am fairly sure I interpreted his intent correctly, misunderstandings sometimes arise between us because one of us takes offence at a word, or even a tone of voice, which we later realize we have interpreted quite wrongly.

Discovering the truth found in memories is indeed a challenge, but it need not lead us to abandon our faith in the callings of those whom we sustain as prophets, seers and revelators. When faced with conflicting accounts of a past event, I have learned to forebear becoming seriously concerned.

Chances are, if I could see all the circumstances of the event as God is able to see them, including the intents and purposes of all the imperfect human participants, I would understand the truth of not only what actually happened, but also why the Lord doesn’t deem it necessary to correct all the errors involved in the recordings of that experience. If we exercise faith in what truth we know, when perfect knowledge is presently absent, we can find peace as we await further clarification of any issue that may be troubling us. As Mormon wrote, “And whoso receiveth this record, and shall not condemn it because of the imperfections which are in it, the same shall know of greater things than these. “ Mormon 8:12

Our memories may not be as perfect a record of the past as we believe them to be. But as we seek to record our own spiritual experiences as best we can, as well as study the experiences recorded in the scriptures, the truths that exist even in the imperfectly remembered events can become a source of great comfort. Written accounts of the Lord’s tender mercies, of answered prayers, of succor in time of need, of revelations given to prophets in the past, even if those accounts are not completely accurate, can help us to open our minds and hearts to the encouragement and direction we need from the Holy Ghost to draw nearer to God today. For me, right now, those kind of memories are enough, and to spare.

[1] “I Remember it Well,” Gigi, Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, 1958.
[2]  “Memory Distortion and False Memory Creation” Loftus, Elizabeth (1996) Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 24 (3) 281-295.

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