In discussing the idea of memory it is necessary to see that memory is one of the several related aspects of mental life, or life of the soul and therefore it is profitable to have a somewhat clear conception of the soul.
This can best be done by comparing several theories of the nature and origin of mental life.
A grossly materialistic conception is that called the “mind-stuff’ theory. This theory will have it that mind as we think of it, or mental life, is the evolutionary product of the combinations of matter crude and simple. The selfsame atoms which originally formed the nebula, the earth-mass, and the lowest forms of life, have been moving and combining until they became brain and brain again produced mind.
However, other psychologists are quick to point out that somewhere in that process there is a chasm, a gap that cannot be spanned. The process of crude matter producing brain matter can be watched, but how can brain matter produce a mind. Here there is a gap between two different worlds. That of matter and spirit. Slime and water can produce a lily and the chemist can watch the process; but how can mud produce thoughts and affections?
To help out of this difficulty somewhat, the idea of a master-cell amid the many brain-cells was suggested. The other cells were thought of as primitive life-forms which affected the arch-cell so that it combined their activities into a higher stage.
Prof. James, after commenting somewhat favorably on the possibility or such an arch-unit, says: “Many readers will say ‘Why on earth doesn’t the poor man say The Soul and have done with it?’” And he confesses that a soul inter-related with brain-states is the line of least logical resistance. But he maintains finally that the thing we can observe is not a soul related to the brain-process, but only a state of consciousness.
Therefore, since James cannot find the soul by experimental investigation, and thinks he does not need it to explain the facts, he dismisses it and so we have his theory, expressed by a phrase that has almost become a word: “a stream of consciousness.”
In this theory of the brilliant Prof .James, which of course has a host of followers, there is no soul as we understand it. No, the most fundamental factor in mental life is that stream of thought. That which corresponds somewhat to our soul or self is the point in that stream in which we are “now.” I think therefore I am. The fact that I am thinking now is the deepest, most undeniable fact I know of. That thought is the only Thinker that the experimental facts require.
The personal identity, that is, the fact that there seems to be a self amid all the changes in the stream of thought is due to the connections and relations of those thoughts whereby they are connected to “me.”
However this “I” is not something definite but in the broadest sense everything I possess—family, friends, property, etc., and in the narrow sense a kind of center in the head and throat where thought seems to occur.
With this theory psychology plainly flies in the face not only of the traditional doctrine of the Christian church, but even of the views of the broad stream of the speculative thought of the ages.
Over against all of this experimental materialism, stands the Word of God, which is to us the revelation upon which the church has built her conception of the soul.
From that Word we learn that the soul is something very substantial, specific, immaterial and superior to matter, a wholly constant entity amid all the changes of its acts and affections. To it is ascribed immortality (it does not decompose as the body) personal responsibility, and numerical identity (it cannot become more or less than one).
Now this conception of the soul is of prime importance for our study of memory. It implies and teaches that the soul is the agent and author of thought and memorial activity.
Looking now specifically at memory, there are two main theories for the occurrence of memorial activity.
The first, the materialistic theory, teaches that memory is begun by the force of matter. It is initiated by a series of impressions in the nerve matter. To use a very simple illustration: Memories are printed in the nerve material of our bodies, like words are imprinted in a phonograph record. When the steel and wax of the phonograph move, the words inevitably come.
In contrast to this the spiritualist believes, on the basis of Scripture that it is the soul that believes.
This is true of all thought or consciousness. For although it may be true that the most elemental consciousness, namely sensation, is passive, and comes to the soul, as it were, before she can react, yet immediately sensation becomes perception, a taking notice of, and perceptions can be combined into conceptions even after the material stimulation has passed.
If you will for experiment, look at a fly on a distant wall, you will notice that you can look at first one wing and then the other. This shifting is plainly not due to a refocusing of the eye for the field of vision amply embraces both. No, the looking at one and then the other is a mental act, not physical focusing, but mental attention.
The soul is the active agent of attention and memory.
Now the reader may immediately reflect that however true it is that the soul is superior to the body of matter, the soul as active agent of thought and memory is very closely connected to the material body and is in many ways conditioned by it. Physical exhaustion, sickness, intoxication, the structure of the body, even, influences the soul.
And this is true. We can, as Christians, never emphasize too strongly the biblical doctrine that man is a physical-spiritual being, so finely interwoven, that he seems not to do or experience anything except as a bodily-spiritual being. This is precisely, the unique glory of this particular handiwork of God, but it is also man’s peculiar responsibility. It is the battle field of his unique battle. And although man has a hard battle for victory of the spirit over the cosmos-related body and because of sin suffers defeat, it may never be presented as an impossible battle. His spiritual soul is the superior part of him and rules over the body and the kosmos. To present it otherwise robs him of his moral freedom. It makes him (by his very constitution through God’s original creative disposal) a victim of ethical determination.
“I keep my body under,” says the Apostle. “Crucify the flesh and affection thereof.” Applying this now to the process of memory the theory of nerve-material predisposition due to residual impressions in the nerve-matter would inevitably push a man deterministically into sin. He cannot help the driftings of his mind to forbidden paths.
He should go to church on Sunday morning but the sparks in his nerve-mass leap from one memory to another and sending his reflection along a path where the imprints are better lined up, he is lead by a process of memory to the fishing-pier instead—and he cannot help it. His neural mass was predisposed thereto by the lineup of residual imprints.
Having now seen the agent of memory, we can look more at the activity of memory as such.
Psychologically we can see three phases of memory. First the power to retain an image of a thing after the material stimulus or the mental act producing it have passed away; secondly, the power to let it sink into sub consciousness as it were for storage; thirdly, the power to recall at will the images so stored away, to combine them with others and so to reconstruct the past and compare it with the present.
Evidently, this gives the possibility of learning of enriching our lives and of adjusting ourselves to the world of reality.
If, now we ask, what is the deepest meaning and purpose of memory, I would answer that it is to increase our knowledge, which for the Christian means, always to increase in the knowledge of God. For to know Him is the highest good and blessedness of the creature, and this knowledge of the Infinite by the finite, time-conditioned creature is only possible by the long, time-spanning process of learning. Of gathering sensations, perceptions, conceptions, until we attain the great all-embracing concept of God.
Hence it is that Scripture always speaks of remembering Jehovah, remembering His words, remembering His mighty acts. So also of the unrighteous that they forget Him, forget His words and acts. And from the address and censure in these passages it is plain that remembering is an act of the will and as such an ethical (good or evil) act.
According to this man will be judged and that which God has testified of Himself in nature and in Scripture will have passed into consciousness, but not remembered if the mind is evil, or falsely reconstructed into a false god. Conversely the evil of sin and seduction and temptation will have entered into sensation and consciousness, and retained in memory by the evil mind, but banned by the righteous into forgetfulness.
Since therefore memory is not a matter of residual imprints in the nerve-mass, which can be erased and made vague and, of course, yes, of course, perish when the body decays in the dust, but memory is a matter of the soul’s power, the possibility of remembering when we stand in the judgment day is almost unlimited. And it is possible that everything we have sinfully forgotten will be recalled then. This need on the one hand, perhaps not imply that man will remember everything, yet on the other hand the basis for a revelation of God’s just judgment, would seem to require that all the essential fact is recalled before the mind of the sinner. How great this possibility is may be known by the unusual memory power of some people in abnormal states. Books of Psychology furnish almost unbelievable cases of memory power in hypnotic state or delirium or in the hour of death.
If then it is so important to remember that which is important, the question arises how to develop a good memory.
And first of all we must dispose of the idea that memory can be developed somewhat like muscles can by exercise. Experiments would seem to prove conclusively that the given natural ability of the soul to remember cannot be increased.
But there are laws and rules by which memory can be made more efficient and effective and then we
must not think of some mechanical exercises, nor in the first place some tricks or schemes for memory, but under the guidance of the purpose and will which wills for God’s sake, wills to fulfill his calling, and to know Him.
1. Sound physical health is a help to memory, just as intoxication hinders memory, so lack of exercise, careless eating, with resultant drowsiness, and lack of sleep impede efficient memory.
2. Interest is a great factor. This causes other impressions to be avoided and also causes us to cling to and cherish the initial impression.
3. Deliberate exclusion of the irrelevant whether consisting of entire fields or of details. One cannot, e.g., be interested in the last word in war-news, politics, stamp collections, local gossip and then be a successful student of Scripture, or parent or teacher.
Repetition helps to fasten impressions. Not so much more repetition as repetition under different circumstances and in other connections. I may learn a piece by once reading, then repeating to myself, as carefully as possible, then hearing another read it.
5. Association is a help. You member a man’s name because you know his brother; a house number because you visualize the block and place in the block; a Latin word because it is related to a familiar English one.
6. Finally, memory devices aiding memory for certain limited uses are handy. The Bible books or months of the year in rhyme; A sentence made from the initials of the apostles, etc.
Of these one type of mind will naturally find some more effective than others, and each person will always be limited by his natural capacity wherewith God has created him.