The word distortion reminds me of an old hobby. In our late teens and twenties, many 20th-century dinosaurs like me invested in high-fidelity (hi-fi) sound equipment to play our music. I can remember taking an LP record out of its sleeve for the first time, recording it on tape, and then storing the record away safely. We performed that ritual, because we knew each time we played the record — even with the best stylus and cartridge — it would suffer wear.
Of course, in our old analog systems we had to deal with multiple sources of distortion during recording and playback. The turntable motor might produce rumble, the stylus might produce pops and clicks as it encountered dust particles or scratches, or the tape machine might produce wow and flutter.
And so we had two goals: first, prevent the distortion where we could and second, manage or mitigate the distortion we couldn’t prevent.
Technically, none of the above are examples of electronic distortion; rather they’re instances of noise or interference. We actually had little control over true distortion, other than to use the best equipment we could afford and not to scrimp on peripheral items like cables.
As I noted above, each time we play a record, the stylus rubs directly against the vinyl and causes wear. So in this case, playback creates more damage and more noise. It changes the surface and distorts the groove. Human memory is somewhat similar. When we encode memories and, subsequently, each time we retrieve them, we change them — even if only in subtle ways. Michael Schudson, whom we met in our last installment, puts it this way:
Distortion is inevitable. Memory is distortion since memory is invariably and inevitably selective. A way of seeing is a way of not seeing, a way of remembering is a way of forgetting, too. If memory were only a kind of registration, a “true” memory might be possible. But memory is a process of encoding information, storing information, and strategically retrieving information, and there are social, psychological, and historical influences at each point. (Schudson, 1995, p. 348, emphasis mine)
Worse than noise, worse than distortion
One of our favorite Memory Mavens, Anthony Le Donne, likes to to repeat a variation on that phrase, namely: “All memory is memory distortion.” Curiously, though, he desperately insists “that this claim in no way denigrates the reliability of memory.” (Le Donne, 2011, p. 108)
But of course it does. In fact, it’s worse than that. For memory is not simply distortion. All memory is construction and reconstruction. Our brains don’t metaphorically rewind a tape and play it back. Instead, we pull highlighted bits of memory and place them into a narrative framework. Each time we execute that process, we change the memory — we add meaning, we forget details, we embellish.
More than that, our memories suffer distortion from adjacent, stored memories and from suggestions by other people whom we trust. Loftus, Feldman, and Dashiell remind us that our brains respond to external information in ways that can cause us to recall things that never happened or never existed.
Two decades of research leave little doubt that misleading information can produce errors in what subjects report that they have seen. In some studies, the deficits in memory performance following exposure to misinformation have been dramatic, with performance differences exceeding 30%. With a little help from misinformation, subjects have recalled seeing stop signs when they were actually yield signs, hammers when they were actually screwdrivers, and curly-haired culprits when they actually had straight hair. Subjects have also recalled nonexistent items such as broken glass, tape recorders, and even something as large and conspicuous as a barn in a scene that contained no buildings at all. (Loftus, Feldman, and Dashiell, 1995, p. 48)
Our primary interest in this series is collective memory; however, all memory resides in human minds. And ongoing research continues to show that although we may believe our memories are reliable, we’re often quite mistaken.
In other realms such as psychology, sociology, criminal justice, etc., people have had to come to grips with these issues. Consider, for example, the consequences in the realm of law enforcement if we insist that human memory is almost always reliable. We know that an unscrupulous prosecutor or detective can convince a witness that he saw a hammer instead of a screwdriver, or that the person they saw for a brief instant is identical to the person now being held in police custody. Yes, and we already know what the consequences are — innocent people spending years in prison.
Ignoring the problem does more harm than good. And simply stating emphatically that memory is generally reliable is, essentially, ignoring the problem. Nor should we insist, against all available evidence, that people remember better when they witness something important. That’s demonstrably false. No, if we truly wish to account for the presence of memory distortion, we must discover its causes and observe its effects.
Some causes of memory distortion
In his groundbreaking paper, “Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory,” Michael Schudson identifies “at least four important and distinguishable processes of distortion in collective memory: distanciation, instrumentalization, narrativization, and conventionalization.” (Schudson, 1995, p. 348). I’ll summarize them below, using Schudson’s words.
Processes of Distortion in Collective Memory
- Distanciation (p. 348):
- First, there is a loss of detail. Memory grows more vague.
- Second, there tends to be a loss of emotional intensity.
- Instrumentalization (p. 351): Memory selects and distorts in the service of present interests.
- Narrativization (p. 355): To pass on a version of the past, the past must be encapsulated into some
sort of cultural form, and generally this is a narrative, a story, with a beginning, middle, and end . . .
- Cognitivization and Conventionalization (p. 358):
- [A]dults remember, from their own lives, not what they experienced but what they learn they are conventionally supposed to have experienced.
- A special case of conventionalization is memorialization. Turning something into a monument or memorial changes the past in that very process.
We should point out that these four processes fall under a broader framework. Schudson maintains that:
- all memory is social,
- memory requires selection,
- memory selection is driven by various processes, and
- collective memory is open to contestation. (Schudson, 1995, pp. 360-361)
The processes of distortion listed above will make more sense to you if you understand that they are all related to the question of selection.
What Le Donne Missed
Schudson views selection of memory as the main impetus for distortion. Regrettably, Anthony Le Donne seems to have missed that point entirely. In his critique of Le Donne, Zeba Crook also misses the point. Crook rightly takes Le Donne to task for weaseling out on the term “distortion” in favor of “refraction” and writes:
Le Donne reduces memory distortion to mere memory selection. All memory is distorted because all memory is composed from a selection of possible material, not from the entirety of it. Selectivity is certainly an aspect of memory distortion, but it is by far not the whole or the heart of it, as Le Donne implies. (Crook, 2013, p. 63)
It his rebuttal, Le Donne testily complains that Crook has misrepresented his views. He says that he does not “reduce memory distortion to distanciation.” He protests:
I carefully avoid the reduction that Crook accuses me of committing. In every case, I argue that distanciation (i.e. selectivity) is the most prominent feature of memory. (Le Donne, 2013, p. 94)
In case you missed it, both chaps have lost their way. Crook misses the full import of memory selection, calling it “mere selection,” and Le Donne has equated selection (which is the primary impetus for distortion) with distanciation (which is just one of several processes of distortion). They have both veered off the highway and are tumbling about in the corn field.
And there’s more. Despite the neologisms sprinkled throughout (a requirement in modern social studies), Schudson’s paper is a model of clarity and precision. Yet when Le Donne cherry-picked its data for his work, he missed some crucial points. For example, directly after writing “memory is distortion,” doubtless intending to shock the reader, Schudson writes:
This is not to say that there are no grounds for arriving at a degree of consensus about the past. People normally accept some sorts of standards of what counts as true distortion and what counts simply as the inevitable variability of perspectives of people looking at the same phenomenon from different values and viewpoints at different points in time. (Schudson, 1995, p. 348, emphasis mine)
We could characterize these two different phenomena as significant distortion and trivial distortion. Failing to catch this distinction causes Le Donne to throw all distortions into one big stew pot. But not all variations in memory are created equal, and Schudson wants to focus on “true distortions.”
Since Le Donne ignores this distinction, he can’t help but wish to backpedal away from the term. Distortion sounds too harsh. He must continually reassure the reader that distortion is “a natural and benign function of memory selection.” (Le Donne, 2013, p. 93) Finally, he settles on a new term, refraction to replace the troublesome connotations of distortion. Unfortunately, that term sugarcoats significant distortions — i.e., true distortions.
Le Donne also appears to have missed the fact that distanciation refers not only to the gradual fading of memory, but also to the loss of emotional intensity. By that we mean that the memory may still be intact, but our perspective has changed over time. We can deal with the event on a more rational level, less clouded by anger, sorrow, guilt, etc.
Finally, Le Donne seems not to realize that Schudson fully understood the importance of language in the formation and transmission of collective memory. In fact, since we humans remember by telling stories, language is the medium of memory. It proves his point that all memory is, at least to some degree, social.
[Memories] operate through the supra-individual cultural construction of language. (Schudson, 1995, p. 347)
Schudson, I would argue, views language as the primary medium of memory. By its very nature, it contributes to “variability in perspective,” or what I’ve called above “trivial distortion.” And certainly it plays a role in the narrativization of memory. The social forms of storytelling depend heavily on a society’s use of language. How could it be otherwise?
But Le Donne sees this as a missing category of “refraction,” and so he adds articulation to Schudson’s list. Because Le Donne fails to differentiate between trivial and significant distortion, he must address it. He defines articulation as “the tendency for memories to conform to language conventions.” (Le Donne, 2009, p. 52)
Why It Matters
In The Historiographical Jesus, Le Donne, directly after listing Schudson’s four processes of distortion focuses on only one, narrativization, along with his own, articulation. Moreover, he deliberately de-emphasizes the constructive, destructive, and inventive power of memory distortion. His entire thesis depends on the notion that memory has continuity. He writes:
Central to this thesis is the concept of mnemonic continuity: I will argue that memory
distortionrefraction (most often) is a gradual and imperceptible process that renders past perceptions intelligible to the continually shifting contexts of the present. Because of this, distortionrefraction trajectories can be charted backward and the historian can postulate the most plausible historical memories that best account for these distortionsrefractions. (Le Donne, 2011, p. 14)
Note: In this same paragraph on p. 13 of his original doctoral thesis, Le Donne used the word “distortion,” but five years later he changed it to “refraction.”
Rebutting Zeba Crook in 2013, he reiterated his earlier conviction:
My point is not that memory reliably conveys what actually happened, but that there is a tendency for early memory distortions to demonstrate continuity with later memory distortions. That is, we cannot rely on memory to verify the actual past, but we can rely on memory to (most often) evolve continuously. (Le Donne, 2013, p. 14, italics his)
He can only dare to make these bold statements because he has diluted the pool of significant distortions with insignificant distortions. He tells us that most distortions are small and gradual, to which I would say, “Yes, and those aren’t the ones we’re interested in.” Those can be explained by shifts in perspective or gradual changes in language.
As an example of true distortion, on the other hand, consider that Abraham Lincoln, a man who in life was vocally opposed to race mixing and who thought that blacks were clearly and unalterably inferior to whites, is now often portrayed as a civil rights champion. How did that happen?
With respect to Lincoln’s evolving image, I would never argue against the idea that some memory distortion occurred slowly over time, but at some point there were clear and necessarily sudden breaks with the past. Lincoln’s new public image in social memory arose through a kind of punctuated equilibrium, and not via the forces of random drift, but through the constructive and destructive powers of distanciation and instrumentalization. The present created the Lincoln it needed, and it still does.
Similarly, I think memory theory helps explain why the Jesus of the gospels differs so radically from the Jesus portrayed in Paul’s letters. The present created the Jesus it needed, and it still does.
For the time being, that’s all I have to say, specifically, about memory distortion. Bart Ehrman’s memory-centric opus, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior, has just hit the streets, and I’m currently reading it. I expect nothing earth-shattering here, but it’s Ehrman, and we’re all required to buy his books and make him the center of our discussions, right? So the next installment will most likely have something to do with brother Bart’s new book.
“Collective Memory Distortion and the Quest for the Historical Jesus,”in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, vol. 11, Issue 1 (2013), pp. 53-76.
Le Donne, Anthony
The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David, Baylor University Press, 2009
Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011
“The Problem of Selectivity in Memory Research: A Response to Zeba Crook” in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, vol. 11, Issue 1 (2013), pp. 77-97.
Loftus, Elizabeth; Feldman, Julie; Dashiell, Richard
“The Reality of Illusory Memories” in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past (pp. 47-68), Harvard University Press, 1995
“Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory” in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past (pp. 346-364), Harvard University Press, 1995