How Long Does Collective Memory Last?

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by Neil Godfrey

If you google around a bit you will probably be able to find this Nature article downloadable for free …

The universal decay of collective memory and attention

Or here …. ?

30 years it gives. Thirty. That’s one generation by some calculations. That’s how long we can expect a cultural memory of John Lennon to (have) last(ed) by oral communication alone. After 30 years the memory needs a written communication in order to survive.

I don’t know how that little bit of research finding will feed into studies of “oral tradition” and “memory theory” related to Christian origins. I’ll have to take some time to master the various definitions and concepts of the Nature article and only after that will I feel I might be in a position to think through any implications.

Others may be well ahead of me in this regard, however. I’m open to learning something new.

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5 thoughts on “How Long Does Collective Memory Last?”

  1. I think that we could argue that cultural memory as well as personal memory is always changing. I have a strong cultural memory of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and George Reeves as “Superman” in the television series “The Adventures of Superman.” from the 1950s, the decade I was born. Probably 90% of the people my age (65) have strong cultural memories of them. Only a tiny minority, less than 5% of my students, average age 45 years less than me, have heard of them and their meaning is certainly different than their meaning for anybody from the younger generations.

  2. Whatever the case, its irrelevant because there is significant evidence that the Gospels aren’t based on oral tradition anyway.

    I wouldn’t draw too many inferences from modern times though, because our culture is very different from ancient ones, and the whole thing is just too nebulous to ever really be definitive IMO.

    Also, it seems to me from my research that the direction biblical scholarship is going is putting more and more weight on Q. It’s almost at this point like the entirety of the case for the existence of Jesus and the legitimacy of the Gospels and Christianity now rests on Q alone. I see more and more cases of scholars “citing Q” (as if its real) and relying on Q as a key explanation for phenomena, and so it becomes less and less about “oral tradition” and more about the claim that Q and perhaps Thomas are the sources of our knowledge of Jesus, not oral tradition.

    But the case I think is very strong that Q never existed and Thomas is a late document written after all the canonical Gospels. Nevertheless, that’s how I’m seeing things, like the arguments are moving away from oral tradition and more to Q and Thomas. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe that just happens to be what I’ve chosen to read.

    1. What one chooses to read can certainly guide what one thinks as normal. So maybe you should try actively looking for recent publications about how the gospels are really derived from oral tradition.

      Speaking of written works that are obviously derived from oral tradition, are you familiar with the Buddhist Pali Tipitaka? That is a scripture whose written commentaries explicitly claim originated as an oral tradition and provide details about how it was memorized, transmitted, and even modified when people could not remember details. Yet the Tipitaka reads like something that was originally memorized and recited – very repetitive. In contrast, the gospels lack marks of being preserved as an oral tradition and they lack (with the exception of Papias who has often been rejected even by Christians) traditions of having been preserved as oral traditions.

    2. I thought the “new in thing” (though it’s been around a few years now) is memory theory. (Not as Ehrman describes it; Ehrman seems to have totally ignored the current scholarship addressing memory theory and writes about it as if he is assuming his peers are talking about a form of “chinese whispers”.)

  3. However, those bushes in your neck of the woods that the locals could tell you were brought there ten thousand or so years ago…

    Personally, in my family if a child has stopped eating for some reason they are said to be doing a “Cork o’ Mayor”. This references a hunger strike by the Mayor of Cork from a century or more ago. An in-law died last year at 105. It’s possible to have memories from your grandparents of the Bonnie prince marching into Manchester in the ’45! That might be an extreme but certainly reasonably significant events can be remembered reasonably well across three generations. The more important the thing is and the larger the community is it is important to the longer it will be remembered. If any of the community is literate or the community can access professional scribes, it will probably be written down. I’m not even going to read the article; my own experience, and reason, falsify it. Memory can be corrupted in individuals and across generations; memory can survive intact in individuals and across generations. So bloody what? Thats been a truism since Adam was a boy. All we have to keep in mind is the caveats.

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