Mind, Memory, and Meaning
Friday, July 15 2011


One of the more interesting and repeated biblical injunctions is that against inattention and amnesia.  In the Old Testament alone, there are dozens of exhortations to the Israelites to “remember,” “fix it in mind,”  “write on the tablet of your heart,” “bind on your fingers,” “tell your children,” and “do not forget” their experience of God, as related through the gritty stories of their exodus from slavery, wanderings in the desert, and eventual arrival at the “promised land.” Repeatedly and urgently, they are commanded to ingrain the events of their encounters with God into their mind and memory, and to transmit that memory to the next generation.

Why, one might wonder, do the ancient writings of the Bible place such emphasis on remembrance?  Two recent and fascinating books — columnist David Brooks’ brilliant work The Social Animal and psychiatrist Curt Thompson’s fascinating Anatomy of the Soul shed new light on the existential, moral, and spiritual importance of memory.

As these works detail, new research suggests that the memories one absorbs, focuses on, and transmits not only shape personal identity and community bonds, but can quite literally change one’s mind.

Increasingly, studies show that the brain’s neural connections are forged, formed, and reformed largely by relationships and memory. It has long been known that babies will suffer brain damage without adequate love and personal attention; conversely, the unconscious memory of having repeatedly received loving care conditions the patterns of their brain activity and neural development.  As Thompson noted: “Neurons that fire together wire together — in other words, neurons that repeatedly activate in a particular pattern are statistically more likely to fire in that same pattern the more they are activated…Remembering is essentially the process by which neurons increase their probability of firing together.”

And while unconscious memory (like parental care during infancy) shapes brain development, there is also growing evidence to suggest that what we consciously choose to focus on and remember can affect our unconscious mind. As Thompson noted: “What we pay attention to affects our lives…the way we attend to elements of our experience wires our brains in certain patterns — and the way we attend to others’ minds (particularly our children’s) influences the wiring of their brains as well.”

As such, the deliberate choices we make about what we “write upon the tablet of our heart” ultimately shapes not only our heart, but our mind and soul — and that of others as well. If, as Thompson asserts, “The ancients knew that what we remember profoundly affects our relationships with every thing around us — not only with living creatures, but with the physical universe as well,” both ancient wisdom and new research seem to indicate that memory and attention are freighted with moral consequence, and that the biblical promise of the possibility for “the renewing of your mind” is both a material and spiritual reality.

Next week, we’ll explore this fascinating topic further in an Evening Conversation with Curt Thompson on his remarkable book Anatomy of the Soul. More information and a registration link are below. We believe you’ll find the discussion illuminating, challenging, and worthy of attention.


Further Reading

Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul (Tyndale Publishers, 2010).

David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (Random House, 2011).

Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (Harper & Row, 1988).

Trinity Forum Reading, “Lessons From History” by Will and Ariel Durant, 2004