Memory and personhood

RECENTLY, while doing research on biomedicine, I stumbled across the transcript of an interesting discussion on current research in memory formation conducted by the United States President’s Council on Bioethics. Two memory research experts, Dr James McGaugh and Dr Daniel Schachter, gave their reports at the dialogue chaired by Dr Leon Kass.

What caught my attention was research on the possibility of blocking long-term “explicit” memory of some events through the use of drugs. “Explicit” memory refers to what may be described as the “what”, as opposed to the “how” (implicit memory), of events.

Dr McGaugh explains that while a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease can remember the mechanics of golf (the “how” of the game), he is unable to remember how many strokes he has taken in a game (the “what” of the game). Anti-anxiety drugs or beta-blockers (such as Propranolol, scopolamine and other anti-cholinergic drugs) are currently used to prevent the formation of long-term memories by diminishing the strength of our memories of certain events.

At a superficial level, this development will surely be greeted with enthusiasm. Life sometimes throws nasty things at us – experiences that would hurt us so deeply that we are emotionally scarred for the rest of our lives.

Would it not be good if we could, by swallowing a pill, erase these memories and be “freed” from their grip so that we can get on with our lives? Think, for instance, of a woman who has been cruelly raped and brutally assaulted. Should not compassion compel us to administer these drugs to her so that she could live the rest of her life without being crippled emotionally by her experience?

The Christian response to such approaches, however, must probe deeper into the significance of memory to personhood. Firstly, we must return to the doctrine of creation, and emphasise the embodied nature of human life. God has created us as psychosomatic beings located in space and time. Our life stories progress within the nexus of space and time: we are historical beings, with a history that belongs to and is part of the history of our world that stretches back to its creation and which anticipates its consummation.

The beta-blockers approach presupposes a dualistic view of the human person, tearing apart the mind from the body, and thus memory from embodied existence. But because we are psychosomatic beings, any attempt to block the memory ultimately affects the whole person. This is because memory is an essential aspect of what it means to be a person. Memory forms part of the history of the person, his “story”. In the memorable phrase of Augustine, the memory is the “subterranean shrine” of a person. By erasing or blocking a person’s memory, the life “story” lacks a story-line, and is no longer coherent and connected.

This approach also betrays a predilection that may be said to be characteristic of fallen humanity that is evidenced in all aspects of culture, namely, the desire to take full control of our lives, to write our own story. Medical science is no exception. Perhaps we should pause and ask ourselves basic questions about the role that we do and do not play in directing the narrative of our lives.

As we ponder deeper, we will realise that much of our life is beyond our control, and that an exaggerated notion of our ability to exert control is naïve and dangerous. Another important question that must be asked is, Do we have an obligation to remember evil? My answer is, Yes we do! To forget what evil is like is to ignore the kind of world we inhabit, and to forget that we ourselves are potential perpetrators of evil. We therefore must ask if erasing one’s memory of the past, even of those painful and horrible events, would in the final analysis not only fail to enhance our humanity but has the reverse effect of diminishing it.

The value of memory can be gleaned from God’s dealings with Israel. The ancient people of God were frequently commanded to “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you”. The story of the salvation of Israel does not entail the erasure of memory of the past. Rather the nature of salvation is such that the past is drawn redemptively into the story of God’s grace and mercy.


This is seen profoundly in the doctrine of bodily resurrection. In his highly acclaimed systematic theology, Munich theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg maintains that in the resurrection, “Nothing will be put in place of this present life. No matter how pitiable, this finite existence will share in eternal salvation”.

To argue the opposite is to create too wide a chasm between creation and redemption. The resurrection is not the rebirth of an entirely new person with a totally new history. Rather it is the culmination and the perfection or transfiguration of the person who had died. In the resurrection, everything that is bound up with the person – his life history, experiences and memories – is preserved. But in the resurrection, the whole person, that is, the total configuration of his life, is redeemed, healed and transformed.

The Christian understanding of salvation emphasises that ultimately no memory is so painful that it cannot be redeemed and transformed. But as Gilbert Meilaender has put it so well, the Christian tradition also urges us to “acknowledge our limits, to honour the narrative quality of our life … and to wonder at the mysterious depths of a ‘memoried’ human life”. This is because salvation does not ignore the embodied nature of human life; it is not the negation of creation but its fulfilment.

Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College is, also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. A member of Fairfield Methodist Church, he worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.