In yesterday’s post regarding William Saletan’s excellent (and continuing) series on memory over at Slate, I quoted this excerpt: “The scary part is that your memories have already been altered. Much of what you recall about your life never happened, or it happened in a very different way.” Elaborating on this idea, Saletan recounts another experiment conducted by Dr. Loftus in which one brother told another brother a false story about a past event:
It was a vivid story, told with sincerity and emotion. But the events Chris described had never happened. Chris’s elder brother, Jim, had made it up as an assignment for Loftus’ cognitive psychology class. Jim, pretending the story was real, had fed Chris the basics—the name of the mall, the old man, the flannel shirt, the crying—and Chris, believing his brother’s fabrication, had filled in the rest. He had proved what Loftus suspected: If you were carefully coached to remember something, and if you tried hard enough, you could do it.
And this was just the beginning. In the years to come, Loftus and her colleagues would plant false memories of all kinds—chokings, near-drownings, animal attacks, demonic possessions—in thousands of people. Their parade of brainwashing experiments continues to this day.
With these experiments in mind, let us consider spiritual beliefs and religious traditions. All across the world, children are from an early age told all manner of stories about past religious events and the spiritual experiences of their parents and teachers. Most children are, in other words, deeply embedded in a spiritual and religious milieu.
They are taught to believe these things and almost invariably, they believe what they are told. With these beliefs deeply rooted in their minds, children begin generating their own spiritual-religious experiences, many of which have been implanted by religious traditions and teachings. This process is self-reinforcing and continues into adulthood. It stands to reason that these experiences are substantially shaped by environmental cues that have created “memories” initially and “experiences” subsequently.
I ended yesterday’s post by noting that the mind is a powerful conjurer. The mind, however, is not a black box operating in isolation from the surrounding culture. Indeed, it is fair to say that without culture the mind is empty and cannot do its work. When the cultural inputs are spiritual and religious, the inevitable result will be that people begin experiencing — and remembering — things that never occurred or which were not caused by any external or material reality. It is, in effect, a form of brainwashing that is powerfully sanctioned by most known societies.