Remember your six year old self? Your thirteen year old self? Your twenty year old self? Are you the same person as you were then? Memory provides an important sense of continuity to our lives. But do our memories make us who we are?
In this episode, Clay and Sarah delve deep into the land of memory to discuss:
* Amnesia and what is reality like when you’ve forgotten your past (see this great article by Daniel Levitin, ‘Amnesia & the Self that Remains when Memory is Lost’)
* Different kinds of memory (Semantic, Procedural, Episodic)
* Are we the same person through time?
* High school reunions – when the person people ‘remember’ collides with the person you are now
* The impact of shared memories – family memories & communal memories
* What makes you You? Memories? Personality? Habits? Deeper consciousness?
What is memory for anyway?
A simple answer would be — so we can learn from our past. So we can respond quickly and appropriately to new situations based on past encounters.
However, scholar Pascal Boyer has an interesting answer to this question. First we should understand that there are actually three different kinds of memory: Semantic Memory (memory of info about your environment), Procedural Memory (memory of skills and how to do things) and Episodic Memory (memory of unique, specific situations in the past – what we think of as our memory!). Both Procedural and Semantic Memory help us by taking specific situations and extracting common elements about them so that we might use that information when a similar situation arises again.
But Episodic Memory doesn’t do this. Instead it focuses on what is unique about an event, and ‘remembering’ this kind of information can involve not only a recall of information but a sense of ‘re-experiencing’ the past event. In other words, this kind of memory — what we think of as our Memory — does not give a simple, straightforward answer of what it is for.
Instead, these unique past events line up as thoughts in our mind and form a kind of ‘Autobiographical Memory’… the story of who we are and how we got to be this way.
Or, as Ulric Neisser named it, the “Narrative Self” which consists of events linked in a causal story leading to one’s present.
But as we all know, often we remember what we want to remember. And we remember events the way we want to remember them. This suggests that it isn’t our memories which made us who we are… it is who we are (or who we think we are) that makes our memories. In other words, we remember certain events precisely because they fit into our causal story about why we are who we are.
And then of course, it is impossible to escape the fact that, although we might get lost in our thoughts and feel as if we were re-experiencing a past event… although we might feel angry, embarrassed, or suddenly sad by remembering something that has already happened, ultimately all these memories are all just thoughts. Made up thoughts. Imaginary thoughts. They aren’t happening anymore. And they may not even accurately represent what actually happened.