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Memory's Identity

kenglander's picture

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Memory’s Identity

Autobiographical memories are neither static nor objective in scope. Both the processes of encoding and recalling memories affect how a memory is preserved. While encoding a memory, a person will subconsciously decide what details will be remembered. The details can range from external sensory observations or internal thought processes. In recalling our memories and communicating them to others, we will again engage in a selection process. This process goes through at least two levels of filtering; deciding which aspects of the memory will be told and how those concepts will be represented through language (1).  As we mentally rehearse the memory and eventually communicate to others, certain “facts” will be embellished, invented, or ignored. The feedback we receive after presenting our memory will further shape our new representation of our recalled memory such that as time passes the memory simply becomes an amalgamation of distorted and imagined images.

A memory does not exist in isolation from other memories and cognitive processes. As an individual encounters novel experiences he or she will forge new connections between memories and the present. Thus, the encoding of a memory should not be seen as a singular and isolated event. Rather, we should understand memory encoding as a constant and imperfect process. While we acknowledge that memories are not infallible and may in fact be completely fabricated, we use these records as ways of defining ourselves and often attribute our actions to remembered past experiences. Identity formation and memory are therefore seen as closely linked processes that have the power to bi-directionally shape and reshape one another. If we choose to accept that a relationship between identity and memory exist, then we must also consider what it means when a memory is “lost” or a series of imagined “memories” are created and what implications these memory alterations have on identity.

A study done by Addis and Tippett (3) showed that identity strength and quality is positively correlated with ability to recall autobiographical memories. Their results revealed that patients with impaired autobiographical memory recall due to later stages of Alzheimer’s disease had lower scores on measures of identity strength and quality. Strength in identity was measured by asking participants to define themselves through a series of twenty “I am...” statements in response to the prompt, “Who am I?”. Statements that were abstract, general, or incomprehensible were coded as being lower in identity strength. Quality was assessed using the Tennessee Self Concept Scale, which asks patients to rate a series of statements for their self-descriptiveness using a 5-point true-false scale. Participants who were unable to successfully answer the questions or contradicted themselves were scored as having a low quality of identity. Memory was measured during a structured interview that assessed clarity and detail of recalled semantic information (i.e. life facts such as age and name of family members) and incident memory (i.e. recollection of specific events). Events that were incoherent or not detailed received low scores. Analyses revealed that vague and unclear identity statements were correlated with inability to recall both semantic and incident memory.

Déjà vu is a cognitive phenomenon that has invaded pop-culture. Whether in movies such as The Matrix or in casual conversation, a large percentage of the population will report having an experience during which they believe their present reality has been experienced in the past. This experience is often categorized as uncanny because the individual is often incapable of explaining why he or she feels like he has already experienced an event. However, for many people who report having experienced feelings of déjà vu, it is a phenomenon that does not have a sustained effect on behavior; the discomfort associated with déjà vu often passes as the “already seen” experience becomes temporally distant. For a small minority of people, though, the phenomenon of déjà vu is so persistent that they can no longer function effectively in society. They refuse to read the newspaper because they believe they already know all of the headlines and also refuse to go outside because they believe that they already know and have already experienced everything that the world has to offer (2). The mechanisms underlying déjà vu, or déjà vécu, are not well understood, but there appears to be a malfunction in the encoding process or the ability to differentiate between experienced autobiographical memories and newly experienced events.

Converse to the phenomenon of mistaking representations of reality as memories, fugue states are experiences during which a person does not remember anything. Fugue states are characteristically defined in the DSM-IV as a brief lapse in memory and identity with the possible effect of actually adopting a new identity. During these memory lapses, people have been known to wander away from home with no recollection of who they are or what they are doing. They are unable to tell people what their names are or where they live let alone recall any memories of childhood or early adulthood (4). While these episodes are relatively brief and people recovering from a fugue state are capable of recovering memories and their identity, the simultaneous loss of memory and identity for a short period of time indicate that memory and identity cannot easily be dissociated.

While we view these memory disorders as detrimental to one’s well being, we also spend millions of dollars on research trying to understand how we can control memory, improve it, and even try to get rid of unwanted memories. Research done in rats shows that blocking a protein known as PKMzeta prevents long-term memory storage of aversive stimuli (5-7). While this research is far from being applicable to humans and seems to only erase long-term associative memories rather than autobiographical memories, the implications for such research are vast. As researchers come to better understand the biochemical mechanisms behind memory encoding processes, it is possible that we will be capable of altering memories. That said, modern day cognitive-behavioral therapies such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) have been shown to help patients overcome anxiety disorders, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder (8). The non-invasive treatments do not affect autobiographical memories per se, but rather are thought to help patients dissociate events from negative or anxious emotions.

While laboratory-controlled manipulations of memory are still largely science fiction fantasies and not realities, the current research begs for a further investigation of how non-autobiographical memories and emotional processes relate to identity. Semantic memories, for example, may not be directly tied to autobiographical or episodic memory, but may still to some extent define one’s identity. For example, knowing one’s multiplication tables would be considered a type of semantic memory. However, the process of acquiring this knowledge or identifying oneself as someone who knows his or her multiplication tables makes this semantic knowledge more tied to autobiographical memories. If one was not able to remember his or her multiplication tables, would it affect that individual’s identity? Suppose, more concretely, that a person who has been smoking cigarettes for the last twenty years strongly identifies as being a smoker. He is forced to quit for health purposes and undergoes EMDR therapy so that he can overcome his addiction. The therapy is a success and he no longer craves nicotine. Has this man’s identity changed? Identity is not a solid construct and may be just as fluid and changeable as memories, but how are we capable of distinguishing which memories identify and define us and which ones are simply peripheral to our self-concepts? 

As we consciously or subconsciously choose which memories to cherish and which ones to delete, we ultimately make a choice about how we want to define ourselves. Considering the extent to which autobiographical memories are malleable over time, it is possible that memories are stored not to retain accurate representations of past events but rather to keep a record of events that we feel are personally relevant to our identities and our goals. When we are unable to remember these goals or encounter experiences that contradict our memories we might experience identity crises and reorganize our memories so that they conform to new goals and personal expectations.



 (1) Skowronski, J.J. & Walker, W.R. (2004). How describing autobiographical events can affect autobiographical memories. Social Cognition, 22(5), 555-590.

(2) Ratliff, E. (2006, July 2). Déjà vu, again and again. The New York Times

(3) Addis, D.R. & Tippett (2004). Memory of myself: autobiographical memory and identity in Alzheimer’s disease. Memory, 12(1), 56-74.

(4) Riether, A.M. & Stoudemire, A. (1988). Psychogenic fugue states: a review. Southern Medical Journal, 81(5), 568-571.

(5) Carey, B. (2009, April 6). Brain researchers open door to editing memory. The New York Times.

(6) Serrano, P., Friedman, E.L., Kenney, J., Taubenfeld, S.M., Zimmerman, J.M., Hanna, J., Alberini, C., Kelley, A.E., Maren, S., Rudy, J.W., Yin, J.C.P., Sacktor, T.C. & Fenton, A.A. (2008). PKMzeta maintains spatial, instrumental, and classically conditioned long-term memories. PLoS Biology, 6(12), 2698-2706.

(7) Shema, R., Sacktor, T.C. & Dudai, Y. (2007). Rapid erasure of long-term memory associations in the cortex by an inhibitor of PKMzeta. Science, 317, 951-953.

(8) Lilienfeld, S.O. & Arkowitz, H. (2008, January 3). EMDR: taking a closer look. Scientific American.



Paul Grobstein's picture

memory manipulation: technological and otherwise

"As we consciously or subconsciously choose which memories to cherish and which ones to delete, we ultimately make a choice about how we want to define ourselves."
And as technologies are developed to influence memory we'll be even more so making choices "about how we want to define ourselves"?