“Your Thoughts: What We Remember”

I was reading a book by Julian Jaynes which discussed what he calls “The consciousness of consciousness,” and I came upon something that I found fascinating.  Jaynes was speaking about how we shape our memories and from what perspective and stated the following:

“..introspect on when you last went swimming: I suspect you have an image of a seashore, lake, or pool which is largely a retrospection, but when it comes to yourself swimming, lo!  like Nijinsky in his dance, you are seeing yourself swim, something that you have never observed at all!

…Similarly, if you think of the last time you slept out doors, went skating, or – if all else fails – did something that you regretted in public, you tend not to see, hear, or feel things as you actually experienced them, but rather to re-create them in objective terms, seeing yourself in the setting as if you were somebody else.”

This is troubling and sobering to me.  In my memories of events, Jaynes is absolutely right.  I picture myself from above, or from the side, watching myself perform these actions, whether they be sitting and talking, or speaking from the pulpit.  I have no recollection of what it looked like when I preached from the pulpit, who I saw or didn’t see, or how I felt, if my legs got tired or I shifted my weight.  What is preserved is the image of myself I hold.  But as Jaynes explains, that image can’t be trusted.  Memory, he says, “is a great deal invention, seeing yourselves as others see you.  Memory is the medium of the must-have-been.”

Can we expand this argument?  Or rather, should we expand this argument to those that chronicle history?  History (his story) by nature is fallible and skewed, and yet it is trusted so.  When we apply this to the writings of our Torah or Tanakh, the fundamentalists are quick to note that the Torah was not written by humans but by God.  Even if that is what we believe, we must submit that the other parts of the Tanakh are not.  I don’t wish to simplify the issue by saying the common phrase: “history is written by the victor.”  However, there is something deeper to this as Jaynes explains.

Even if we all stood at Sinai and experienced the revelation, thinking back to it we can only picture ourselves in that moment from above or the side, seeing ourselves as others must have seen us.  We retain no memory of what it felt like to stand on the desert sand, whether or not the sun was making us hot in our robes, the sound of the thunder or the flash of the lightening.  Rather, we would have a picture of what we think we experienced.

My question is, whether we are remembering ourselves swimming, as in Jaynes’ example, or remembering ourselves experience the revelation at Sinai, how authentic are our memories, and thus how authentic are the memories that we write down and become our history?


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