Repetition, Repetition, Repetition


There’s a retired lab technician called EP, who in the book Moonwalking with Einstein, is referred to as “the most forgetful man in the world.”  EP suffered from one of the most sever cases of amnesia ever documented; his memory extended back only as far as his most recent thought.

The book records his amnesia in a dialogue:

“What is the thing to do if you find an envelope in the street that is sealed, addressed, and has a stamp on it?” Frascino asks.

“Well, you’d put it in the mailbox. What else?” He chuckles and shoots me a knowing, sidelong glance, as if to say, “Do these people think I’m an idiot?” But sensing that the situation calls for politeness, he turns back to Frascino and adds, “But that’s a really interesting question you’ve got there. Really interesting.” He has no idea he’s heard it many times before.

“Why do we cook food?”

“Because it’s raw?” The word raw carries his voice clear across the tonal register, his bemusement giving way to incredulity.

I ask EP if he knows the name of the last president.

“I’m afraid it’s slipped my mind. How strange.”

“Does the name Bill Clinton sound familiar?”

“Of course I know Clinton! He’s an old friend of mine, a scientist, a good guy. I worked with him, you know.”He sees my eyes widen in disbelief and stops himself.

“Unless, that is, there’s another Clinton around that you’re thinking of—”

“Well, you know, the last president was named Bill Clinton also.”

“He was? I’ll be—!” He slaps his thigh and chuckles, but doesn’t seem all that embarrassed.”

In a recent post on Liberate, I described his amnesia when he responds to his own reflection by saying:

“An old man… that is all."

There is something interesting about this story, however.  EP regularly would go on walks around his neighborhood, despite not being able to remember what his own house looks like and having no idea the directions around his neighborhood.

As EP walks, he goes on a route that he takes a least three times a day, although he has no recollection of the route that he takes.  He can’t write down his own address, he doesn’t recognize any of his neighbors, and he even will discover random objects on his walk, only to have no idea where they came from when he gets home.

In the midst of his walking, EP has without having any realization of it, created some important memories about his own neighborhood.  EP learned that  his neighbors are people he should like, although he doesn’t remember who they are.  He has a sense of where he should walk and go, even though he can’t tell you why he’s going the direction he does.

What we are witnessing in this story is nondeclarative memories.  It’s an unconscious remembering.

Declarative memories are things that you realize you remember.  When you study for a test, you realize what you remember (or don’t remember).  You realize the phone numbers you remember or where you put your keys last.

Nondeclarative memories are the things that you just know but don’t really realize it.  For example, if I ask you to draw a circle, you’re not really going to spend time recalling a circle, you’re just going to do it.  Or if you need to quickly hop on a bike and ride to the end of the street, you can do it without even thinking about the mechanics of bike riding.

You are remembering something all without actually realizing it.

A Theological Memory

I’ve had a number of conversations with people who wouldn’t consider themselves the most theologically minded.  They’ve been happy with our church and would even say they believe what we believe as a church.  But they would also admit that they would struggle to clearly speak why we believe what we believe about a number of any issues.

What I’ve often responded in these situations is usually, “You know more than you probably realize.”

Because for many of these people, their issue was that they felt like they hadn’t studied enough.  But what they didn’t realize is that as they have been formed as believers in the church every week, they have picked up on what we believe and why we believe it without even ever realizing it.

And so because of this, somebody might hear a Bible teacher suggest that “Jesus only died for Christians.”  And immediately a group of people who may not have the theological terminology to describe what is being discussed will naturally say, “That doesn’t sound right.”

Because they are remembering doctrine without even realizing it.

The things that we say and do in our churches are creating memories.  As we repeat the story of the Gospel in our services, we are create muscle memory so that these truths will be embedded deep within a person when they need to recall it.  We repeat creeds and prayers that have been around for hundreds of years because in repeating the words there is a memory that is being created.

As you repeat the creeds, songs, and stories in your congregations, they will get remembered.  This is why a repeating chorus can be so powerful… because without even realizing it, a phrase like “Your love never fails, never gives up” gets embedded into your head and you are humming it while you mow the lawn.

At bedtime in our house, it’s my job to actually tuck the kids into bed.  And a part of this routine for me has been singing to my kids.  There are a number of songs that rotate through my repertoire, including some newer songs, some bible memory songs, and some hymns.  But one song that I sing every time is the hymn, the Doxology. And I repeat this night after night because in the simple act of singing, memories and theological truths are being formed in my own children.

Repeat the things that matter the most because it is what you want people to remember the most.

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