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Remember His marvelous works that he hath done… Psalm 105:5

Take a moment to recall your earliest memory.

Perhaps your earliest memory is from a particularly happy moment, an exciting event, or a stressful situation. Mine is a combination of exciting moment and stressful event: I went with my mother to pick up my older brother from kindergarten for the first time. I was quite curious to get a glimpse of where my brother went during the day, but I was also anxious as to whether I would be required to talk to older kids or even a teacher! I can still remember the pegs in the hallway where the students hung their jackets and being a bit overwhelmed by the number of children in one building. I was 3 years old at this time, a common age for earliest recollections.

While a variety of definitions are applied to the term “memory,” most definitions center on the capacity of an organism to acquire, consolidate, and retrieve information. The biological actions relating to encoding and storing information are also included in many definitions of memory. Using these characteristics to define memory,1 we can conclude that the Creator has gifted both humans and animals with memory. We can reflect on how our memories give us insight into the human condition and how we are called to use our memories to the praise of our God.

As will be discussed below, the biological actions associated with memory are thought to be located in specialized cells called neurons. Essentially all animals studied to date that possess networks of neurons have some form of memory. We know that mammals such as dolphins and elephants remember events decades later. Countless rodents have been subjected to memory tests, where they are challenged to remember the path through a maze or remember the location of a submerged platform in a pool of water. Contrary to the popular factoid, goldfish memory persists on the timescale of days as opposed to seconds. Even tiny worms exhibit some memory-like capacity in how they respond to various stimulations. Just like humans, animal memories drive their behavior to a large extent. It can be endearing to watch Internet videos of dogs reuniting with their owners after the owners have been away for months. Animals will slink away from or exhibit aggressive behavior towards people who have mistreated them in the past. Animal predators exhibit surprising memories of the best hunting methods and locations, and their prey exhibit equally impressive memories that they utilize to avoid becoming dinner.

Even though many of us might wish we had better memories, the human capacity for memory dwarfs that of any animal. Ponder for a moment the amount of information you have acquired, retained, and are able to call to mind over the course of your life. There are literally millions of data points that you can remember. Many of these memories are important for us to effectively live our daily lives: technical facts related to our occupations, the names of dozens of family members and acquaintances, the driving route to church (it can be fun to test this out on children—at which age are children able to guide us turn-by-turn all the way to church?), and the fact that a loaf of bread should not be placed at the bottom of the grocery bag. Other remembered items are important to our personal quality of life: we enjoy remembering facts about our favorite topic, whether it be the details of the Normandy invasion or the statistics of our favorite baseball team; we remember whether we prefer dark chocolate or milk chocolate; and we remember that the forecast called for rain today so that we pack an umbrella.

Our memories also have an important impact on our behavior. For example, we will utilize different approaches to co-workers as we come to realize and remember their reactions in various contexts, or we become more likely to pursue interactions with people with whom we have had previous pleasant exchanges. In addition, we enjoy the simple act of engaging memories and the act of memorization itself (who does not enjoy reminiscing with friends about the old days, and how many games are not built around the object of memorization?). Further, memories can be an important aspect of who we are and how we view ourselves individually. For example, when calling to mind our relationship with God, some of us cannot remember a time when we did not have faith in Christ, while others of us remember a time before we had faith. For both circumstances, this can lead to profound expressions of gratitude. New Christian converts in the early New Testament church were often challenged to remember their unconverted state in order to be encouraged to godliness and faith in Christ. Memory utilized in this way can be powerful indeed.

Most scientists working in the area of memory research will readily admit that the way in which memories are formed and how memories work remain largely unsolved. However, the current state of knowledge related to the biological basis of memory is fascinating and points to the incredible wisdom and power of the Creator. Animal studies, traumatic human brain injuries, psychologically stressful events, diseases, and brain cells studied in dishes have all informed what we know about this complex topic. Three basic biological events are thought to be involved in memory formation.

The first is the formation of something called “synapses.” Synapses are connections between two neurons (brain cells involved in memory) where the two neurons communicate with each other. When a stimulation occurs, one neuron sends chemical messengers to the second neuron, and the second neuron responds in some manner, often relaying the signal to another neuron. In the case of memory formation, the final neuron in a “neuron-synapse-neuron-synapse-neuron” chain can be called a “memory neuron.” The exact cellular response of a memory neuron that causes it to “store” a memory is not known. However, it is known that new synapses are formed to connect memory neurons with other neurons as new memories are formed.

The second biological event involved in memory formation is really a pair of related events termed “long-term potentiation” (LTP) and “long-term depression” (LTD). Both LTP and LTD refer to molecular actions occurring to neurons during memory formation. To illustrate these actions, we can take the example of a student learning new information. First, the student is in a lecture where a specific fact is presented (for example, terrorist attacks occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001). When the student hears the teacher say, “Terrorist attacks occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001,” a chemical called glutamate is released from one neuron at its synapse connection with a memory neuron. This glutamate binds to proteins on the surface of the memory neuron. In neurons that regulate body movement, this would immediately produce a result in the second neuron. However, in memory neurons, no result is produced. The practical consequence of this is that only hearing a fact mentioned once in a lecture will likely not lead to a student remembering that fact. Now, if the teacher states the fact again, the first neuron will again send glutamate to the memory neuron. If this happens enough times, eventually the repeated binding of glutamate on the memory neuron will produce a result, which is that the student now remembers that terrorist attacks occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001. However, this does not necessarily mean that the student will remember this fact two weeks from now on the test. In order to form a longer-term memory, the new information has to be encountered again and again, preferably in different ways. If the student reviews her notes at home, glutamate again binds to proteins on the memory neuron. Reviewing her notes again later or having a parent quiz her on the information causes the glutamate to bind the proteins on the memory neuron again. This repeated action causes the following to occur: 1) more proteins that bind to glutamate are made on the memory neuron; 2) these proteins that bind glutamate become more sensitive to glutamate; 3) the memory neuron sends a signal backwards to the first neuron, causing the first neuron to send even more glutamate to the memory neuron. Together, this is LTP: essentially the glutamate signal from the first neuron becomes “louder” and the memory neuron “listens” more attentively. LTD is simultaneously occurring, which can be briefly described as the memory neuron pruning away all other signals coming to it, so that it only receives the signal from the first neuron, which correlates with the fact that terrorist attacks occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001. Repeated utilization of this newly memorized fact will further enhance LTP and LTD, leading to even longer-term memory storage.

In addition to new synapses being formed and louder and more sensitive signals occurring at the synapses, whole new memory neurons can be produced during the memory formation process in both adults and children. This is the third biological event that occurs during memory formation. All three of these events occur in specific regions of the brain that vary with the type of information being memorized. For example, there are separate regions of the brain that are used for visual memory, auditory memory, and tactile memory. Fascinating studies of blind or deaf individuals show that the regions typically used for visual or auditory memory and function are “re-wired” for utilization of memory and skills needed for those specific disabilities. (For example, in addition to using their tactile brain region for reading Braille, blind individuals also use their visual brain region.)

Whether or not the sovereign God will permit man to completely understand the nature of memory forma tion, man does have clear commands to use memory for specific purposes. Throughout the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit urges people to remember. Man is called to use his memory specifically by the fourth commandment (Ex. 20:8), and we are often called to remember the commandments themselves (Mal. 4:4). The Israelites were continually told to remember the Lord who brought them out of Egypt (for example, Deut. 6:12; and consequently, we are commanded to remember Jehovah, who delivered us from the slavery of sin), and we are often called to remember all of the wonderful works that God has accomplished for our salvation (Deut. 4:9; Ps. 77:11; Ps. 143:5; II Tim. 2:8). If we become discouraged with how long we think the Lord is tarrying or begin to slip into unholy living with the world, we are encouraged to remember what Scripture plainly tells us about the last days (II Pet. 3). Throughout the Scriptures, we are further instructed to remember the weak, such as the poor, the orphans, and the widows (for example, Acts 20:35; Gal. 2:10; Heb. 13:2). The act of remembering is also an important component of our praise and prayers to God (I Chr. 3:12; Ps. 42:4–11; Ps. 103:2; Ps. 119:55). Further, remembering is a key aspect of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19).

From these passages we are encouraged to work on our memories for God’s glory. The act of Scripture memorization is not only for catechism and Christian school children. If we are to comply with God’s commands, adults will continue to memorize Scripture throughout their lives. Memorizing Scripture will allow us to call to mind all of God’s wonderful works guiding His church throughout history and accomplishing salvation for His people. In order to properly prepare ourselves to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we also have to exercise our memories by looking back at our life and bringing to mind the evidence of God’s sanctifying graces in us. Memory is integral to the Christian life.

However, we also have to recognize the effects of the Fall on our memories. We all experience the deterioration of our memories. In fact, many of our earliest memories are likely creations of our minds based on facts that were told to us or pictures that we viewed and then integrated into a “memory” (perhaps after reading this article my mother will inform me that I never did visit my brother’s kindergarten class). Even our memories of relatively recent events suffer from obvious defects. It has been demonstrated time and again that individuals’ memories change on an almost yearly basis. For example, across the country, individuals participating in a study have written down their recollections of the moments following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Years later, these individuals are given their written statements that now are quite different from their current memories of these moments. In this and other studies, the study subjects are certain that their current memories are correct, and are profoundly confused as to why their written memories so plainly contradict their current memory. This is similar to the phenomenon of eye-witness testimonies in court frequently being unreliable and changing over time. We all experience this in more mundane ways in our daily lives. For example, if I do not put my car keys in exactly the same location every day, I will be late to work the next day. Similarly, most of us have experienced the confusion of walking into a room with a purpose that has completely slipped our mind. As an exercise to prove the point of our fallible memories, have everyone in your family try to remember what you had for dinner going back as many evenings as possible, and then compare notes. We also know that stress, distraction, lack of physical activity, and poor nutrition can negatively affect our memories. These produce almost the opposite effects of the biological events described above. Additionally, many of us have experienced a family member suffering from Alzheimer’s disease or other age-related memory loss. This too is an effect of the Fall on our memories. Disease and age can ravage the once-sharp memory of a loved one until every last memory has seemingly been torn away.

Therefore, a careful consideration of memory also exposes the frailty of the human condition and will incite in us a desire to look forward to the incorruptible bodies in which we will be raised upon Christ’s return. However, even now in our corruptible bodies the Scriptures provide us great comfort when meditating upon memory. Our God’s memory is incorruptible and active in our salvation. How many times does Jehovah remind us that He remembers His covenant with us (for example, Gen. 9:14–16; Ex. 2:23–25; Ps. 105:8; Ps. 111:5). He also remembers individuals in their particular needs (Gen. 30:22; I Sam. 1:19; Is. 49:15–16), and even causes us to remember Him to our salvation and His glory (John 14:26–27). Our memories are a precious gift from above—let us remember to use them to the glory of God’s Name.

1 Some of these characteristics also describe learning; however, learning is a component of memory.