I will remember you...will you remember me? These are the opening lyrics to a poignant song by Sarah McLachlan that always makes me sigh as memories of loved ones float to the surface. It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot more lately as the spring lambs, mine and yours, head off to their new homes and pastures. I’ve seen other shepherds posting similar thoughts in the course of their “farewells” so I thought I’d do a bit more digging...
As it turns out, sheep have amazing neural systems to support facial recognition, previously thought only to have evolved in primates (think chimpanzees). They can even recognize—that is, learn through the natural experience of our up-close and daily interactions as shepherds—positive and negative emotional cues from the faces of humans as well as other sheep without any specialized training. Subsequent studies have shown that sheep can remember at least 50 different sheep and 10 different human faces for more than 2 years (some studies say several years!). Neural “encoding” of the faces of absent individuals is also maintained for this period.
Professor Keith Kendrick, a social neuroscientist who has studied sheep social cognition for over 20 years states, “sheep can remember other familiar sheep and humans for at least several years, displaying emotional responses when reunited. This is perhaps not so remarkable, given similar observations in companion animal species. A more challenging question concerns whether sheep can “think” about such individuals in their absence. We have found some evidence of this in brain activation patterns using non-visual cues. It is still not known whether sheep can voluntarily form visual images without such cueing, but I think it is very likely that for sheep “out of sight” does not mean “out of mind.”
I’m super comforted by that, and I hope it brings you comfort too. I’m grateful that the new shepherdess of our three wethers has invited us to visit them should we ever be in the area. I’d like to think that “the boys” will remember, by mind and by heart, the expression of pure love on my face that accompanied my daily “scritches” and tender caresses and come running to greet Shepherd Ed and me. I know that I will remember their sweet faces forever!
In a similar way, we need only “look to the Lord and his strength; constantly seek his face” (Ps. 105:4) to form a powerful connection that defies the limits of vision, time, and space. As a sheep in the flock of the Lord, I “see” Him with the eyes of my heart and recall His everlasting love for me. Just as Kilian, in this photo, “feels” me, my soul knows the loving caress of the Good Shepherd.
Once felt, it can never be forgotten.
My heart said, “Seek His face.” Your face, O LORD, I will seek.