What Is Memory?

Defining memory remains elusive, perhaps due to its constant employment. Memory operates unnoticed until it begins to fail (like in dementia). The human memory requires no on and off switch or manual to operate. Webster’s Dictionary defines memory by its function, to retain and recollect. Similarly, science defines memory as a cognitive system with a focus again on functions such as encoding, storing, and retaining information over periods of time. When asking a typical person to define memory, many might think of studying for tests in school or in trying to find lost car keys. These definitions all collectively focus on the functions of memory but fall short in truly defining the essence of memory. In an attempt to further define memory, here are three categories to help: a gift, a craft, and a marvel.

Memory is a Gift

God created many living creatures with memory, but human memory functions at a higher level than the rest of terrestrial creation. Despite the universal and innate nature of memory among humans, uniqueness and diversity exist as humans possess different strengths in memory. The universal gift manifests unique talent. Consider movie maven Mary who, years later, recalls precise plot details from a single movie viewing; or music man Martin who hears a song in a department store that he replicates on the piano at home later that day; or master mechanic Mark who rebuilt an engine from one look at a diagram. Mary, Martin, and Mark each utilize memory, but in unique ways.

Memory is a Craft

Remembering is a craft. Memory involves much more than the dictionary definition of function like retain and recollect. Memory is a creative function of the mind that deeply involves the will and emotions. The active memory draws upon the will and emotions to produce action— actions like worship and obedience. Craft implies purpose, the purpose to grow and mature. In discussing memory in the ancient world, Joshua Foer, the 2006 USA memory champion, agrees that “a trained memory wasn’t just about gaining easy access to information, it was about strengthening one’s personal ethics and becoming a more complete person.” Memory is not just a recorder to be replayed. It surpasses simple retention and recollection as it employs a craft that draws upon the emotions and will to bring about maturity.

Memory is a Marvel

Memory is a creative marvel. Augustine captured this wonder when he muses,

Men marvel at the mountain heights, the huge waves in the sea, the circuits of the stars, but they neglect to marvel at themselves. They do not marvel at the fact that while I was speaking of all these things, I was not looking at them with my own eyes. Yet I could never have spoken of them if I had not stored them within my memory, just as though I were looking at them outside.

Augustine recognized that a common task of memory is truly miraculous. Pause and picture in your mind oceans, mountains, or stars; and then recognize memory just made those images come to life.

To add to the marvel, neuroscientists calculate the human brain contains around eighty-six billion neurons. Under a microscope, each neuron resembles a tree with branches (called dendrites) and roots (called axons) interconnected with each other. Each single neuron makes over one thousand connections to other neurons with a total estimate of around one quadrillion connections (a 1 followed by 15 zeros) in the brain. This interwoven neuronal forest of the human brain inspires images of the Amazon rain forest, the largest forest on earth with around 390 billion trees. For comparison, four human brains of neurons equal one Amazon rainforest of trees. The wonder extends beyond sheer numbers.

If the number of neurons was the only determinant of the power of memory, a few select animals like the elephant would surpass the power of human memory since the elephant possesses three times the number of neurons than humans. However, 98 percent of the elephant’s neurons reside in the part of the brain called the cerebellum that controls the trunk of the elephant. Unlike those of the elephant, human neurons are densely located in the cortex, the part of the brain that involves high-level thinking. The higher number of neurons in the cortex produces a higher function of memory compared to all other creatures. Just like in real estate, location matters, not just numbers. Human memory is well constructed by the Creator.

Human memory is difficult to define. Memory is universal and innate to humans but also unique to each individual. Beyond the functions of retention and recollection, a person uses memory to interact with the emotions and will for the purpose of maturity. Memory elicits marvel. Consider, memory requires memory to even define itself; and memory remembers that it forgets.

Excerpted from Redeeming Memory: How God Transforms Memories from a Heavy Burden to a Blessed Hope by Matt Rehrer, now available from Shepherd Press

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