Re-Memory: Neurological Clues to Syncretism

In 1968 there was an American football game between Harvard and Yale. It ended in a tie although Harvard trailed the entire game. Even with 42 seconds to go Harvard trailed 13 to 29. A touchdown, an onside kick and recovery, and a touchdown as time ran out and  a two point conversion tied the game with no time left.

Forty years after the game a documentary was made. Clips of the game were shown between interviews of players from both sides. Several of the players had gone on to fame and fortune since. An actor such as Tommy Lee Jones who starred in Coal Miner’s Daughter, a roommate of former President George W. Bush, another player who dated Meryl Streep from nearby Radcliff, were just a few of the players interviewed.

One player from Yale who made a series of critical mistakes in the game was fascinating for a particular memory. He believed that he hit a player and knocked him out of the game. The clip of the game that followed showed that it was another player who injured the player he mentioned. He was asked in the interview if it could have been another player who hit him. He was absolutely certain he hit the player. He recounted how a year earlier he was hit by the same player and he wanted revenge and got it by spearing him with his helmet. It never happened in the way he remembered.

This is sometimes called compensatory memory. The Yale player had fretted from a year and dreamed of revenge. When he saw the Harvard player limping off the field he remembered it as the result of his hit because he willed the injury. Compensatory memory effected a fusion of event and desire. Throughout the interview the Yale player accepted his errors, the calls of the officials he disagreed with and his memory of the other play was accurate and verified be the replayed clips of the game. Why in this one play did his memory recreate the event?  Compensatory memory? Perhaps!”

In a similar way memory was re-remembered in a movie done a few years ago called Pieces of April. It is about a family who pile into a car and head to their adult daughter for Thanksgiving dinner. Through the movie we learn that the mother and daughter are estranged from each other and it is only because of the breast cancer in the mother who is in a final stage that the father is taking a reluctant family to this holiday dinner. The father picks up grandmother who suffers from dementia and yet she provides clear insights to the behavior of various characters. Two teenage brothers and sisters snipe at each other and create a natural tension while mother ignores them and father tires to play peacemaker. The son is a photographer who has documented his mothers disease and radical masectomy. He also supplies marijuana for his mother’s nausea. The daughter is the “good child” who can do not wrong but clearly tries to sabotage he sister’s thanksgiving event.

In the meantime the adult daughter struggles to get a thanksgiving meal together by  calling upon her odd assortment of neighbors in Greenwich Village. In the end, neighbors, family and the alienated daughter all get together for a meal.

What interested me in the movie was a conversation in the car on the way into the city. The movie hold enormous anger toward the adult daughter. She struggles to remember one good thing about April, who as a teenager used sex, drugs, and arson to torture the family. Finally the mother says that she has one good memory about her adult daughter. Silence fills the car and the teenage daughter and April’s younger sister says, “Mom, that was me.”

The mother transferred a memory about the younger sister to the older sister. This triggers a crisis in the mother and she wants to go home and abandon the plan to have dinner with April.

Again, compensatory memory is invoked until it is unmasked. I thought that is was cruel of the younger sister to claim the memory as her experience and not her sisters. Why could she not have just been quiet and let her mother hold onto the reformatted memory. Perhaps this is how memory and history fuse and evolve into memories that are healing and kinder even though the memory is not true. It becomes true in a new way and tells a story for a higher purpose.

It struck me today that this is what happens when religions borrow stories from each other and reformat the actual events into a higher and greater purpose through the mechanism of compensatory memory. It isn’t that people purposely recreate memories in a purposeful way. It seems to occur on an unconscious level. The new memory serves a higher purpose unless it is unmasked by a teenager in the backseat or by the replay of a video clip.

I have been pondering how Lu Dong Bin, an historical figure changes into an immortal among the Taoist  deities and how stories of Jesus are reassigned to him. It is hard to image that people would redact history on purpose to make Lu Dong Bin into a Taoist Jesus. But I can see how it would happen through psychological mechanisms illustrated in the documentary about the Harvard/Yale football game or in the movie Pieces of April.

Nero psychology has long studied this phenomenon. It is called Source-monitoring error which is a type of memory error whereby the source of a memory is attributed to times, places, or people that are not the memory’s actual source. These errors can occur for a multitude of reasons but more specifically they occur either as a result of poor initial encoding of the events or either of the two broad judgement processes used in source-monitoring (heuristic and systematic) are disrupted when the time comes to determine a memory’s source. Factors that may illicit source-monitoring errors are time constraints, high levels of stress, depression, distractions, alcohol and drug use, or damage to relevant brain areas. It is a feature in both healthy and unhealthy people.


  • Johnson, M.K., Hashtroudi, S., Lindsay, D.S. (1993). Source Monitoring. Psychological Bulletin, 114(1), 3–28
  • Landau, J.D., Marsh, R.L. (1997). Monitoring Source in an Unconscious Plagiarism Paradigm. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 4(2), 265–270
  • Lindsay, D.S., Johnson, M.K. (1991), Recognition memory and source monitoring. Psychological Bulletin, 29(3), 203–205


    About daleinchina

    Chongqing University of Arts and Sciences.
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