Malleable Memories and Brainsoothing Religiosity

Another nice article in Slate today from William Saletan on memory researcher Dr. Elizabeth Loftus.  As has been the case with the previous articles, the most recent entry — “Truth or Consequences?” — is relevant to supernaturalism and religions:

[Dr. Elizabeth Loftus] wrote with dismay of the “horrifying idea that our memories can be changed, inextricably altered, and that what we think we know, what we believe with all our hearts, is not necessarily the truth.” Quoting a fellow psychologist, she warned readers not “to accept a false reality as truth, for that is the very essence of madness.”

Loftus never believed in the absolute sanctity of truth or memory. She believed that memory, through wishful thinking, constantly modified itself. People remembered themselves as having given more to charity than they really had. They mentally airbrushed their behavior in marriages and relationships. They minimized what they had lost and embellished what they had chosen.

[M]emories could be conveniently adjusted. And this rewriting of history was no perversion. It seemed to Loftus such a common tendency that it must be a product of evolution. In short, it was natural. Its function, she surmised, was to promote happiness or, at least, to avoid depression. And this theory matched her reflections about her own life and the lives of her friends: Often, happiness was more important than truth.

Happiness more important than truth?  This is exactly what Nietzsche discussed in the letter to his sister, which I posted here.

There is an obvious hint of Freudian wish fulfillment in this; in his classic Future of An Illusion, Freud reasonably surmised that religions often function to allay fear, soothe uneasiness, and console grief.  A similar theme was recently taken up by the anthropologist Lionel Tiger and neuroscientist Michael McGuire in their book, God’s Brain:

Positive socialization — that is socialization characteristic of religion-related events, enacting rituals, and incorporating and committing to religious beliefs — predictably brainsoothe.  Religions excel in brainsoothing.

People often need advisors about important or confusing elements of life.  Religions are directly set up to provide precisely such advice . That’s precisely what religions do, often very eagerly.  It’s scarcely a surprise that counsel may be most needed at the formal changes of status and intersections of life.

Religions are able to show strength and provide brainsoothing precisely when individuals need it or at least think they do.

As for Dr. Loftus’ hypothesis that our malleable memories (whether false, forgotten, or confabulated) were targeted by natural selection and are adaptive, the jury will have to remain out.  It is always tempting to speculate about the possible utility of something and call it an adaptation, but we must always be on guard against telling “just so” stories regarding human evolution.

The process she describes may simply be a side-effect or byproduct of other brain functions.  It could also be that our kluge-like brains are not optimally evolved, and that our memories are simply constructed or confabulated out of whatever materials might be on hand.  Religions often provide such materials.

Whichever hypothesis is correct, one thing is clear: “truth” for many people is heavily contingent on memories that may be incomplete, changeable, embellished, partial, fluctuating, or even false.

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