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What Is A Memory?

A number of readers on the blog have objected to my understanding of memory, specifically to what a memory is, that is, to what constitutes a memory.  As a rule, these readers have argued – some with considerable force and conviction! – that a “memory” is a mental recollection of something that one has personally experienced.

Let me cite one of the more closely reasoned expressions of this alternative view by one of my respondents, before explaining my view and why I have it.



Bart, I think people might be confused by your definition of false memories. In the medical, psychological and legal literature, false memories are defined as BELIEVED-IN MEMORIES OF PERSONAL EXPERIENCES that are false or are falsely remembered by specific persons. Beliefs ,stories, narratives, myths, folklore and conspiracies that are false but are circulating in a community or culture are not considered false memories by memory experts since these are not claimed to be first-hand memories of personal experiences.

For example, a false memory can be created in the mind of Bill that he was abducted and probed by space aliens after he is hypnotized and presented with leading questions. After hypnosis, Bill would believe his false memories of alien abduction were real personal experiences from his past. But the fact that a fifth of the U.S. population believes that Bill was abducted by space aliens after his story was publicized is not considered to be a false memory by experts who study false memories. That would be a collective false belief. If Bill willfully fabricated/hoaxed his alien abduction story to fool people that also would not be considered a false memory by memory experts. Bill knew he fabricated the story and did not personally believe it to be a real personal experience from his past. Anyone who believes BIll’s hoax to be a real event would simply have a false belief about Bill being abducted by aliens and not have a false memory about Bill.


This is a very clear and well-articulated response.  I have two comments to make about it, the first of which I was hoping that, in my book, I would not need to go into.   I clearly was wrong about that!

Psychologists typically differentiate between different kinds of memory, and they debate whether these various kinds of memories are stored and recalled in different, or similar, ways using different, or similar, mental processes/mechanisms.   Remembering how to ride a bike is different from remembering where you went on vacation last August and both are different from remembering what the capital of France is.

The first type of memory is often called “procedural” memory – a kind of bodily memory that we use when we next want to hit a backhand in tennis or walk across the street.  This kind of memory is not relevant to my project so I don’t need to say anything about it.

The other two types of memory are closely related in interesting but complicated ways, but are also quite different.   Since an important article by Endel Tulving published in 1972, they are typically referred to as “episodic” memory and “semantic” memory.

Episodic memory involve remembering things that you have personally experienced, episodes that have happened (a number of scholars start drawing important but fine differences here, but for my purposes they are not ultimately important).   What happened on your first date?   How did you get your last promotion?  What did you have this morning for breakfast?    There are obviously right and wrong answers to these questions, although most of the time there’s no way to check to see if your memories about them are correct.  You may have a perfectly clear and vivid memory of where you were when you heard about the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, but in many cases – prsychologists have demonstrated – clear memories about such things are flat-out wrong.

Semantic memory is not about what you experienced but about what your recall in terms of facts about the world.   Who was the 39th President? What is the longest river in South America?   What is the square root of 125?   We “remember” facts.   Usually (here is one of the tie-ins to episodic memory) we remember a fact because of something that once happened to us in that at some point in the past we learned the fact– even though we don’t remember the event (the time we first learned the fact) itself.   For example, most of us know that 9 times 5 is 45, and that’s because at some point in our passed we had it drilled into us.  We no longer, usually, remember that particular episode in which the drilling took place.  But we do remember the answer.   And so it is more of a “fact of the world,” a “semantic” memory.

Just as we can mistakenly remember what happened to us in the past, we can mistakenly remember factual information.   In this case, unlike, usually, the case of episodic memory, it is possible to check to see if our memory is right or wrong.  If we remember that the capital of France is Barcelona or that the 14th president of the United States was Thomas Jefferson or that UNC won the 2016 national championship in basketball (I *wish*) it would be a false memory, verifiably false.

Memories about Jesus can be false in the same way.   They can be recollections of things he said and did that in fact he did not say and do.  (Just as if we remember that George Washington delivered the Gettysburg address, it would be a false memory.)

But I do want to make my second point, which is that memory is not only studied by legal scholars, medical expertes, and psychologists, but also by sociologists.  Since the ground breaking research of Maurice Halbwachs in the 1920s, sociologists have talked about a phenomenon usually called “collective memory.”  We remember things collectively, in our various social gropus.

It is not that there is some gigantic brain out there that is thnking our social thoughts for us.  We all remember things individually.  But sometimes (always, some would say, including Halbwachs) our memories are socially created and recalled.   Our social groups – we belong to all sorts of social groups – have a recollection of the past, with some social groups remembering things differently than other social groups.  The way the Civil War is remembered in Savannah is very different from the way it is remembered, as a rule, in Bozeman; the way someone in NYC remembers the cold war is very different from the way someone in Moscow does; the way Martin Luther King is remembered is very different by my students in Chapel Hill from the way he is remembered by the local chapter (if there is a local chapter; maybe there is one?) of the KKK.

And so social groups “remember” things in certain ways.   Including groups of Christians, remembering Jesus.

In short, I do not agree that “memories” are always of experiences that we personally have had.  On the contrary, I think there are collective memories of events and persons from the past.  And there are certainly semantic memories of all sorts of things, millions of things,that we ourselves have never experienced.  These memories can be false as well as true.

My Memory Book, Chapter 4 Again: The Death of Jesus
Ramblings on Charity and Religion



  1. gmatthews
    gmatthews  April 13, 2015

    I hope you plan on having an explanation in your book of the different types of memory and the difference between belief and memory!

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    doug  April 13, 2015

    Perhaps I’m hair-splitting in this example: As a child I was taught the story of how George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and later ‘fessed up to it. I remember that story well. Yet, we know now that the cherry tree story was probably made up. My *memory* of the story is not false – I correctly remember what I was told. But the story itself is false. The difference is between my memory (which is correct) and the story (which is false). Sorry for the hair-splitting.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2015

      Yes, there is a difference between your memory of the event and your memory of being told about the event.

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    Scott  April 13, 2015

    So, will you foucus on social memory only or try to bridge episodic and social varieties

  4. Bethany
    Bethany  April 13, 2015

    I guess as a psychologist, my issue (which may or may not be relevant to the discussion in the actual book) is (1) “false memories” in psychology is a term that has a specific meaning, which is not how you’re using it here, and (2) more generally, different groups of scholars may use the term “memory” to refer to different things, but that still leaves them different things! You can’t have a “memory” of something that happened 2000 years ago in the psychological sense of “memory” (though you can have semantic memories concerning it) and perhaps you can’t have a “memory” of a first kiss in the sociological sense.

    But it seems to me that these two different uses of the term “memory” are in fact referring to different things. From a psychological standpoint, my (probably incorrect) belief that Jesus was born in Bethlehem is based on my (correct) semantic memory of the story in Luke and my (also quite possibly correct) semantic and episodic memories of hearing the story in popular culture, from parents, in church, in Sunday School, being in a Christmas pageant, etc. etc. There memories may all well be perfectly accurate: there isn’t necessarily any kind of memory error (in the psychological sense) the way there is when I have a false memory of where I was when I learned about the Challenger disaster.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2015

      Yes, indeed. These are different things. But they are all related to memory. Different kinds of memory. (Just as remembering how to ride a bike is yet a different kind of memory. But it’s still a kind of memory.)

      • Bethany
        Bethany  April 16, 2015

        I agree that “cultural memories” are *related* to memory, but I’m still not convinced that they *are* a form of memory (in the psychological sense) in the way that e.g. implicit memories like procedural memory are. It’s not clear to me that a group can have a memory in the psychological sense any more than a group of people can, say, have the experience of feeling pain (Chinese room thought experiments notwithstanding). For example, it hardly makes sense to ask what would happen to Christianity’s collective memory of Jesus if we removed Christianity’s collective hippocampus, or whether Christianity consolidates its collective memory while it sleeps, or what would happen to Christianity’s memory of Jesus if we put Christianity under hypnosis!

        • Bart
          Bart  April 17, 2015

          Yes, they are a different kind of memory. There is no collective hippocampus!! But a memory is simply a recollection of something from the past. In parts of North Carolina the Civil War is “remembered” as the War of Northern Aggression. Individuals remember it that way, but it is because of the influences exerted on them by their social group, not simply because of the neuronal activities of their brains

          • Avatar
            frankmelliott3rd  April 19, 2015

            I have to say that in this case I’m casting my lot with Bethany and the blogger cited in your post who used the term “false beliefs.” To laymen (who will be the readers of this book), the term much more accurately describes the phenomenon that you are calling collective false memory. And, because so much of your research is based on psychological investigation into memory, I’m surprised that you are not using their terminology (“false belief”).. I daresay it would save you much grief. I would think that you must have come across this term in your research, and I’m curious as to your thought process in somehow seeing it as less appropriate for your purposes. Is it simply because your book is supposed to be about “memories,” so you need to use that terminology?

            Yes, one can say that we in North Carolina “remember” the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression,” but that strikes me as using the term “remember” loosely. It’s a colorful way to put it, but none of us remember the war, we just remember what we read about it and we remember what others have said about it.


          • Bart
            Bart  April 20, 2015

            Yes, if I were restricting myself to what psychologists say about memory, that would be true. But sociologists and anthropologists also talk about memory, and it’s important to hear what they are saying! Since the 1920s the concept of “collective memory” has been deeply rooted in sociological research. (Even if most people haven’t thought of it that way before!)

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    RGM-ills  April 13, 2015

    I remember that Jung did think there was a big brain out there. But, it could be one of my false ones.

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    RGM-ills  April 13, 2015

    Today helped. Just one more question. What does a false memory become, when a member or members of a social group begin to discount it as bunk? A true forgotten?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2015

      If they discount it then they no longer hold it. I guess it’s a discounted false memory….

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    RonaldTaska  April 13, 2015

    I too had some difficulty with the last sentence in the April 10th blog because it seemed like “false beliefs” were being called “false memories.” Your explanation helps. .

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    RonaldTaska  April 13, 2015

    Oops! It’s getting a little confusing. It is not the last sentence on 4/10 that gave me trouble, but using the term “collective false memories” rather than using the term “false beliefs.” I am going to reread all the memory blogs.

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    RonaldTaska  April 13, 2015

    I reread all of the memory blogs. Where I begin to struggle is on the second 4/10 blog when you make the “second” point about Luke’s birth story and write that it is a “false memory” even if Luke made it up because that did not sound like a “memory” to me, but like a “made up story.” Do people have “collective false memories” about Jesus or “false beliefs” about Jesus? It seems like you are using the term “memory” in a special way. I hope I have not muddied the water too much.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2015

      I’m not saying that if Luke “made it up” that it was *his* false memory. Instead I’m saying that his made up story (assuming he made it up) became a false memory that others had who accepted the story as something that actually happened.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  April 27, 2015

        II think that when people believe something is true when it isn’t, it is incorrect on two counts: (1) its content is incorrect and (2) to consider it a memory, even a collective memory, is a mistake. It’s more appropriate is to call it a people’s collective story (a people’s myth), not a collective memory.

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    Adam0685  April 13, 2015

    I’ve always thought (I think like yourself) that a memory is less about what actually happened, was said, etc, but how any “piece” of information is decoded, stored, retrieved, etc. in the brain, and that there are cases that I remembered what I originally remembered (whether it was something I experienced (e.g. what I just ate for dinner) or heard about from someone (from oral or records of what Jesus apparently said)

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    kenpostudent  April 14, 2015

    So, let’s take the story of the feeding of the 5,000. This would be an episodic memory for the actual participants, but the memory becomes a collective episodic memory when it is told and retold and eventually recorded in the gospels. Am I correct? If so, then for argument’s sake, are you saying that the actual event, historically, could have entailed Jesus feeding a small crowd of a hundred or couple hundred, but when it was retold and recorded, the event was “remembered” as a supernatural miracle where 5,000 were fed? Maybe you will deal with this in the book, but what is the bandwidth (for lack of a better term) of potential variation between the actual event and the memory? In other words, can a story like this get “remembered” as 5,000 persons fed, as opposed to only being a couple hundred? Is it credible that the number of persons fed in the story could have changed by a factor of 5 or 10 or 100? Is there an upper limit for how much the “memory” can change in a given period of time (40 years or 50 years, as opposed to 100 to 1,000 years)?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2015

      Yes, that’s right. It *could* have entailed a smaller event. Or it could have been a story told that didn’t happen at all.

      • Avatar
        RGM-ills  April 16, 2015

        can we presume that most all the miracle stories are false memories, or are we leaving wiggle woom for the hyper-physics folk?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 17, 2015

          I don’t think scholars can presume that, but they can certainly argue it.

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    JBSeth1  April 14, 2015

    Hi Bart,

    I’ve really been enjoying this latest topic on your site.

    In following these latest updates, I’m not exactly sure what you mean by the term false memories. Todays blogged helped clear some of my confusion, but I’m still not clear about whether you are saying that during the time of Jesus and the oral tradition, the people had false episodic memories, false semantic memories, false collective memories or some combination of all 3?.

    In your new book, I believe that it will help your readers, if you spend a little time documenting and reviewing what you’ve learned about the various types of memories that exist (episodic memories, semantic memories and collective memories) and the differences between them.

    It also seems to me that many people find the topic of, “False Memories”, to be a highly charged and highly emotional subject. If, in your book, when you use the term, “False Memory” you actually mean erroneous memories or inaccurate memories, then perhaps, it might be better to use some other term, than “False Memories”, for them.


    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2015

      False memories could be *any* kind of memory (you could falsely remember how to swim by recalling that it involved not moving your arms or legs)

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    jgranade  April 14, 2015

    The question for me is whether a memory of a fact is “false” because it doesn’t correspond to reality or because the memory is different than what was originally learned or heard or read. If I learned that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and correctly remember this account as I learned it (but it has since been proven that he was born in Nazareth), then is this a case of false memory or of correctly recalling an erroneous detail that I learned? Does there have to be something faulty about our remembering to constitute a false memory. Or is any memory that doesn’t correspond to reality deemed false.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2015

      It could be both. It could be a false recollection of what you heard and/or it could be a false recollection of what happened.

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    RonaldTaska  April 14, 2015

    After sleeping on it, “collective memory” seems, to me, so far, to be much like “tradition.” If I understand it correctly, for many Catholics, such “tradition” is as important as the Bible.

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    dragonfly  April 14, 2015

    Am I right in thinking this: in the example above, if I remember that Bill was abducted by the KGB, that would be a false memory. Whereas if I remember that he was abducted by aliens that would be an accurate memory. This is because I’m not remembering what actually happened, only what I’m told happened.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2015

      I think you have those reversed? If he was abducted by the KGB (which is technically possible) but he remembered being abducted by aliens (which is not possible) then he would have a false memory. If you were told that he was actually abducted by the KGB and then correctly remembered that he had been, that would be a true memory.

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    lbehrendt  April 14, 2015

    Bart, count me among those of your readers who are not certain where you are heading with your analysis of memory. Let’s go back to your earlier discussion of the birth narrative in Luke. I agree with you: what we “remember” from Luke IS memory, even if Luke made up his birth narrative. Memory doesn’t have to go back to the perception of eyewitnesses to be memory. But if it’s our goal to understand “what really happened,” then it matters a great deal whether Luke made up his stories. If Luke made it all up, then our memory of Luke’s birth narrative is only that. It is only a memory of Luke. It does not go back to the historical Jesus. And if we can’t tell the difference between a distorted memory and a made-up story … well, that’s a problem if we want to know about Jesus. This is the problem Zeba Crook has confronted, and as you’ve critiqued Crook in the past, it would be interesting to revisit Crook in light of your discussion here about memory.

    So long as we’re struggling, let’s struggle with something else! I understand you to be a proponent of the so-called “Criteria of Authenticity.” As I’m sure you know, some of the strongest proponents of memory theory in historical Jesus studies are also strong critics of these criteria. Both Dale Allison and Chris Keith fall into this category. I hesitate to try and summarize what these critics have to say. Some would say that the goal of “authenticity” is suspect: given that all memory is distorted, we should be focusing on relative degrees of plausibility rather than a binary distinction between the authentic and the inauthentic. Also, certain criteria seem to rest on shaky ground if we take memory theory into account. For example, the criterion of multiple attestation gives greater weight to statements made about Jesus from multiple independent sources, with independence based on what we know from source criticism. So, for example, if we consider Mark and “Q” to be independent sources, then a statement found in both sources would be deemed to be multiply attested and possibly authentic. But if Mark and “Q” derive from a single “social memory,” are they really independent sources? Can we map the independence of memory trajectories with the confidence of a source critic?

    The points I’m raising are small ones, to be sure. But they go to a bigger point, which is that we can’t really do history (other than reception history) without some belief in some modicum of memory reliability. With the exception of Crook, I think it can be said that all of the memory-history scholars of the historical Jesus have made their own peace with memory, even if that peace is uneasy (for example, see Dale Allison’s expressly uneasy peace in “Constructing Jesus”). It seems like you’ve made your own peace as well. Given your talent for big-picture thinking, I’d love to hear the terms of the peace you’ve made.

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    SteveWalach  April 14, 2015

    Educated people are shocked to learn that Genesis has two different creation stories. Their memories tell them there is only one. One God, how could there be two different creation stories and one God with two very different names? They are also often shocked, confounded and sometimes indignant when told Jesus had a brother named James who was also the leader of the Jerusalem church. That’s not what most people remember to be true.

    These are semantic memories, which can be – and often are – very much at odds with the truth. Remembered misinformation abounds, as does cognitive dissonance. I hope your new book also addresses the difficulty in accommodating new/contradictory information and re-structuring long-held memories to reflect the truth.

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    walstrom  April 14, 2015

    Bart, aren’t we assuming a fact not in evidence when we say we ‘remember an event’?
    If a memory were an object, like a crisp one dollar bill, all transaction ( ‘handling’) (recalling) would leave us with a wrinkled, shabby, but ultimately fully representational legal tender. But, even a dollar bill in circulation only 6 months has to be replaced!
    Memory is a chemical and electrical “I OWE YOU” representing–not a 100% actuality–but a subjective assessment of an event, with ‘value added’ attached because to each person, the event remembered is a personal IMPRESSION of an event–rather than the event itself.

    When we were in High School, my best friend, Johnny, told me of an incident which had happened to him in childhood. His mom and sister were present as he told me about it. Suddenly, his vivid recollection was interrupted by his sister and mother.
    “That didn’t happen to you, Johnny–that happened to your sister!”
    He reacted with astonishment.
    He argued until he was finally convinced otherwise. He puzzled over this afterward and decided that in telling about the vivid event over and over through the years, he had somehow vicariously transferred the emotions into his own experience by proxy.

    Now stop and consider the difference between the original event and each step leading to Johnny’s confusion!
    Now that he is ‘set straight,’ what shape is that memory going to take next time he tells about it?

    You can only remember an event once.
    In the act of recalling, it is quite often the case, a corruption takes place.
    The second time you recall the event you are actually retrieving the (tampered) memory.
    And so on. Each recall in some way (subtle, to be sure) violates the original perception.
    In other words, your mind is playing the parlor game of ‘pass it on’.
    Bart, is this a distinction without a difference–or is it an essential element in all discussions about retrieved memory harbored in our subjective storehouse of the mind?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2015

      I don’t think you can assume that hte first time you remember something you do so accurately — as you say. And yes, subsequent recollections are recollections of the memory.

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    David  April 14, 2015

    Well stated. Though, I would suggest that UNC winning in 2016 is more of a hopeful prophecy, than a false memory.

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    RonaldTaska  April 14, 2015

    I have been thinking some about your recent blog where you described not understanding why people are not more helpful to others. I tell you what really bothers me: It’s that most Christians have almost no interest in exploring the historical questions to which you have so admirably devoted your life. It seems to me that Christians should be very interested in such subjects since Christianity is the most important thing in their lives. Nevertheless, it seems totally impossible to get very many of them, including ministers, to critically examine crucial questions about Christianity when they should be chomping at the bit to do so. That is a real puzzle to me. I have attended many churches and this attitude seems to be fairly common among all of them, even the more progressive, liberal ones. Moreover, if one raises a historical issue in a church, one usually gets completely shunned and ignored and completely left out of the in-group. This seems odd and even hurtful to me. Questions about such important matters should be sought and encouraged by churches. Those in such churches might even learn something useful from someone who asks and thinks about and studies, really studies, historical questions. Moreover, shouldn’t ministers teach adolescents some of this history so the adolescents are better prepared when they get to college? The material is certainly far less complex than calculus or physics so adolescents should be able to master it?

    Thanks for whatever comments you have about this matter. I just don’t get it.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 15, 2015

      Yes, it’s a puzzle to me too. It’s why I wrote my book Jesus Interrupted….

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