Waranga Uniting Churches

The bits of ourselves that reside in other people’s minds.

By on July 25, 2017

shared-memory-brainIn our everyday life remembering is the norm.

We expect to be able to remember things, faces, names, and events. We make heroes of people with exceptional memory. We get worried when we have a “senior’s moment” and forget things we know that we really know, but for the life of us we just can’t bring to mind at the moment. We grieve when a loved one has dementia and can’t remember who we are.

In the news recently, it was announced that Tasmania will become home to what is being called Australia’s first suburban village designed specifically for people with dementia. It will be a place where it is expected that people forget things, it will be designed in such a way that the streetscape and staff are extensions of the residents’ personal memories.

Shared memories are not just common memories about the last holiday we went on together. Social psychologist Daniel Wegner coined the term transactive memory, which he defined as “a shared system for encoding, storing, and retrieving information.” Transactive memory is the little bits of ourselves that reside in other people’s minds.

Here’s how Wegner describes it: “People in close relationships know many things about each other’s memories. One partner may not know where to find candles around the house, for instance, but may still be able to find them in a blackout by asking the other partner where the candles are. Each partner can enjoy the benefits of the pair’s memory by assuming responsibility for remembering just those items that fall clearly to him or to her and then by attending to the categories of knowledge encoded by the partner so that items within those categories can be retrieved from the partner when they are needed.”

After 30 years of marriage, I think I know who is storing a lot of my memory! Wegner says that such knowledge of one another’s memory areas takes time and practice to develop, but the result is that close couples share the pair’s memory tasks. A couple is better together at remembering stuff than either of them individually.

And not just a couple. Transactive memory resides in teams and larger groups. Individuals in a sports team come to know and anticipate how the others will move or behave or react in a certain situation? That’s transactive memory. It’s also why a small business team can be potentially more effective than that of any of the individuals that comprise it.

This concept enriches the idea of the church as the body of Christ. Each person’s gifts and memory is combined with an understanding of other members’ domains of expertise.  It also adds insight to the sacrament of Communion. Together, we “remember Christ’s death” and that remembering is enhanced through word and action as we break and eat the bread, and drink the wine. I treasure the deep, abiding intimacy that’s possible between a group of people who share history, values, vision and direction, and who store their best and most beautiful memories, as well as their theology and doctrine, in each other’s minds for safekeeping.

This is the gospel, and it’s good news.

Brian Spencer, Minister,

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