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.