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 involves 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 – as psychologists have demonstrated – clear memories about such things are flat-out wrong.  (None of us believes that, since our memories of such things are so CLEAR and CERTAIN.  But alas, many of our most clear and certain memories can be shown beyond doubt to be false….)

Semantic memory is not about what you experienced but about 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 past 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 2022 national championship in basketball (sigh…) 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 experts, and psychologists, but also by sociologists.  Since the groundbreaking 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 groups.

It is not that there is some gigantic brain out there that is thinking 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.

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2023-05-04T13:29:32-04:00May 14th, 2023|Memory Studies|

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  1. dabizi May 14, 2023 at 12:30 pm

    This book didn’t sell as well, and may not have had any success without several prior NYT bestsellers… because the thesis is weak. I say this as an atheist with 10 of your books.
    It is an artifact of the English language to say that we REMEMBER the horrors of World War I on Armistice Day. At this point, virtually no one has a personal memory of WWI because we were born well after the war.
    We have an understanding of what happened and we may believe Kaiser Wilhelm was an arse. This understanding and belief may differ from events and what others were recorded to have thought at the time of WWI. But this possibly erroneous understanding and belief, even if people term it a “collective memory”, is not a false memory. A false memory according to the APA is “a distorted recollection of an event or, most severely, recollection of an event that never actually happened;” a memory of an event believed to have personally involved the individual remembering it.
    This book’s thesis conflates collective false belief and false understanding with false memory, in order to argue that since memory is imperfect and fallible, then so is a collective memory/belief. Weak.

    • BDEhrman May 28, 2023 at 11:51 am

      Possibly so. But as you probably know, memory scholars look at the matter differently, along the lines I describe (To make sure I got all that right, I asked Daniel Schacter, chair of the Dept. of Psychology at Harvard and a leading expert on “False Memory” [as in his book The Seven Sins of Memory] to read the book in manuscriptfor me, and we had a good exchange about it all. He said I my descriptions of false memories right.)

  2. Martin Brody May 14, 2023 at 1:16 pm

    My thoughts on the subject based on the commenter’s objection and Bart’s response.

    First, to address the commenter’s distinction between a false memory and false belief. A false memory meaning a recollection of a personal experience that can be proved wrong. A false belief meaning something that someone believes sans personal experience that can be proved wrong. In both circumstances, the commenter emphasizes that, in both circumstances, the objective fact can be proved wrong. However, in the “false belief” example, the person who believes in the alien abduction would have read about the facts. If the person remembered the facts as recounted in the story, his or her memory would actually be accurate and the person would have no reason to question the facts, other than reasonable skepticism. IMHO, the commenter’s real objection involves the reasonableness of the belief. Both the false memory and false belief involve “positive delusion”—a desire to believe in alien abduction, despite no reasonable basis for such belief.

  3. RD May 14, 2023 at 1:38 pm

    Can “collective memory” apply to the hard and fast, unquestioned belief sets in which memory per se doesn’t appear to be involved, e.g., in fundamentalist Christian circles? Or are they separate, unrelated phenomena?

    • BDEhrman May 28, 2023 at 11:52 am

      Memory involves everything that we have in mind about the past, whatever social circles we’re in.

  4. Martin Brody May 14, 2023 at 1:41 pm


    While not specifically mentioned in Bart’s response, his book emphasizes that when we “remember” something, we are really engaging in a creative process rather than a retrieval process. An analogy would be a word processing document that we all save on our computers. Our memories don’t “retrieve” the word processing document, they essentially “retype” the document.

    Now with regard to the commenter’s objection, if I sketched a picture of my boyhood home. That sketch would be based on my personal experience. Now let’s say you sketch a picture of my boyhood home based on the architect’s description of it. Your sketch would most likely be more accurate.

    If I understand the theme of Bart’s posts correctly, first, he is trying to illustrate how “positive delusions” influence the accuracy of both episodic memories and semantic memories. We create the memories, personal or communal, we like. Second, he wants to illustrate what I call “cultural lies”—beliefs maintained within a given culture based on peer pressure rather a reasonable assessment of objective facts.

  5. dabizi May 14, 2023 at 4:02 pm

    In 1997, Ms-Chen told a reporter with The Spectator that Chairman-Mao, dictator of Communist-China, began abusing her at age-14 in 1962, when he was age-69. This account may or may not have been true.
    After watching the movie Xiu-Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, I remembered reading the column about Mao-the-pedophile. Many people remember hearing this story about Mao.
    CCP officials say the account by Ms-Chen is a lie and false, even though many people believe this story about Mao. Perhaps it is a false belief, a false collective memory.
    Can I-myself “remember” that Ms-Chen was molested by Chairman-Mao in 1962, before I was born, if in fact she never even met Mao? I can remember hearing the story, but I cannot remember her experience… I was not there or even born.
    If Ms-Chen is falsely remembering the events, then it’s a false memory for Ms-Chen.
    If I and others believe Ms-Chen’s false account, we have a false belief, not a false memory.
    In that case we would be believing the woman, not remembering her molestation. It would not be our memory, it would be our belief that her memory is correct… we might have a false belief but not a false memory.

  6. Bewilderbeast May 15, 2023 at 3:22 am

    Thanks Bart, I have loved these posts on memory, a pet topic for me over the last few years. The more I have read about memory research, the more amusing it is to see how “100% convinced” people can be about their memories. It has been fascinating to me to learn just how malleable and invented our memories are.

  7. peterstone May 15, 2023 at 3:45 am

    Thanks for this. I for one want to learn more about memory after reading this (presumably by reading JESUS BEFORE THE GOSPELS–it’s on my list!). I still, however, think there’s something a little misleading in speaking of a false (semantic) memory in this way. Suppose I come to believe that Bill has been abducted by space aliens because of something I read in a book. I could be wrong in 2 ways. I could misremember what the book said–maybe the book didn’t say specifically that he had been abducted. Or I could remember what the book said perfectly, but what the book said was false (because Bill made it up or whatever). It seems right to call the first, but not the second, a “false memory.” The second sounds like something else–a memory that is false, you might say, but not a “false memory.”

  8. nichael May 15, 2023 at 11:16 am

    An off-topic question:
    To your mind, what are some important topics that, while they may be central to Christian doctrine, we can be fairly certain that the Jesus of the New Testament never actually spoke about?

    [To be clear, the question is about 1] doctrines that it is safe to say that all/most mainline Christians hold to; 2] issues that were addressed by the New Testament Jesus himself (not merely elsewhere in the NT, e.g. by Paul); and 3] not issues about which what Jesus said might be “interpreted” as addressing, in a Hermeneutical sense (e.g. the Trinity).

    Likewise, the question avoids discussions about what the “Historical Jesus” may or may not have said.
    In short, those issues that are central to core, (small-o) orthodox Christianity, that Jesus —as recorded in the NT— directly addresses. ]

    To pick a single issue about which you have written a lot recently, how much does the Jesus of the NT really say about the later notions of Heaven vs Hell?

    Finally, if you’ve addressed this issue elsewhere, please feel free to simply give a pointer.
    Is there a standard article/book/discussion about this topic that you could recommend?

    • BDEhrman May 28, 2023 at 11:56 am

      Well, for openers, Christian beliefs about Jesus: that he is God, that he pre-existed, that he was to die for the sins of the world. Jesus didn’t hold any of things. But if you mean did he *contradict* them,then no. He never said (I am not God; I did not preexist; I am not going to die for the sins of the world)

  9. nichael May 15, 2023 at 11:41 am

    An off-off-topic meta-question:

    I guess it’s a bit too late to ask, but what are your views/rules/thought on off-topic questions such as mine above? (I.e.questions unrelated to the post in which they appear.)

    Are these OK? Is there a way in which you would prefer that such question be handled?

    One way in which other podcasters/bloggers address this issue is with the occasional “AMA” [Ask Me Anything] episode/column. (A particular example here are those that appear in Sean Carroll’s podcast.). Would something like that perhaps be appropriate or useful here?

    (In short, a major point of my question is that, given how valuable a resource this blog is for all your readers, and how generous you clearly already are with your time, I think we all need to be mindful about adding unnecessarily to your already enormous workload. So, I just thought I’d ask.)

    • BDEhrman May 28, 2023 at 11:57 am

      Yup, any question related to the topics we deal with on the blog are welcome at any time.

  10. michaelfriesen May 15, 2023 at 12:43 pm

    Question for Bart when you return from the Galapagos: I’ve heard you say on several occasions that a majority of experts on the historical Jesus believe him to have been an apocalyptic prophet. While I don’t doubt this to be true (it happens to be my own, non-expert opinion), I was wondering how one might know this? Back in 2009, the first PhilPapers Survey asked professional philosophers for their opinions on questions such as the existence of free will, and some interesting numbers were generated (most do). As far as I know, though, there’s never been a similar survey of historical Jesus scholars.

    To sum up: I’m not wondering how one knows Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet; I’m wondering how one knows what the majority view is among scholars of the historical Jesus.

    • BDEhrman May 28, 2023 at 12:00 pm

      It’s not based on a scientific survey, but on a wide knowledge of what other scholars publish, lecture, teach, and discuss. The only large contingent of scholars who do not agree with it are theologically conservative Christian scholars (protestant, catholic, orthodox). But among historical scholars it’s by far the dominant view.

  11. Kirktrumb59 May 15, 2023 at 12:57 pm

    You are correct, Bart.

  12. Frank_Bella May 16, 2023 at 3:28 pm

    Bart, I would like to make a suggestion regarding your Youtube podcasts. I assume most people, like me, would like to watch them in order. You number the podcasts, which is great. But the number only appears on the screenshot in very small letters. I’m going blind trying to see the number. I would suggest putting the number on your Youtube title. For example, Episode #30 is “Is Paul the Founder of Christianity?” The #30 only appears on the little orange bar on the screenshot. I would suggest adding it to the title in the Youtube text – “Is Paul the Founder of Christianity – Episode #30.”
    Thanks, Frank

  13. MarkWiz May 18, 2023 at 6:11 pm

    Could there also be an odd continuum in the persistence of cultural false memories in that you can’t willfully correct them? Let’s take, for example, Jesus’s appearance. It is ultimately unknowable, but we can make some educated guesses about it (most of which conflict with traditional portrayals). Because Western culture claimed Christianity as its own, Jesus has been portrayed in art, film, and video as white, thin, of average build and height, and possessing handsome features. He’s often dewy-eyed with hair like Fabio. As an educated adult, I know how wrong that image is, and yet, say the name “Jesus” and that stereotypical portrait pops into my mind. I find I cannot consciously change it as it’s been with me since childhood. More tellingly, how would that image ever be changed in Western culture? From the masters works of art to plastic statues on dashboards, our culture has perpetuated this “false memory” throughout the ages. Even singing “Some Children See Him” during the holidays does little to correct the mis-imaging as it seems to imply that we are all free to create a portrait of Jesus as we will.

  14. FrankLoomer May 20, 2023 at 7:27 am

    I can see the objector’s point: where a deliberate or even pius falsehood, eg what Jesus *would* have said to help a narrative, is just what it is. A lie. *somewhere* a story gets started without any predecessors. What follows is a passing along, or even further distortion of the story, so the memories involved may be quite accurate, but it’s not a *memory* being passed along, but a lie. But as you say, no one can prove anything from the evidence left to us. Still, it’s there. The Luke birth narrative adds an additional strain on this being usefully classified as a false memory. The very contrary Matthew narrative where Jerusalem is simply Jesus’ home town, and the move to Nazareth supported by scriptural allusion. Joseph is informed by the angel, in Luke he has no clue there is even an issue. The slaughter of the innocents, the contradictory genealogies, and so on. Hard to escape the feeling someone didn’t make up something wholecloth. Most interestingly, redactors didn’t remotely bother to reconcile these contradictory accounts. Too baked in by the time they came to light?

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