psych pstuff header

by Dr. Donna Roberts

The Story

Do you have a good memory? Are you sure? After all, you probably don’t remember what you don’t remember. Humans tend to be rather poor judges of their own performance.

In many ways our identity is essentially based on the sum total of our memories. What we remember, especially about ourselves, forms the basis of who we are, or at least who we think we are.

Rene Descartes was one of the first philosophers to write about the identity in this way with his famous proclamation, “I think, therefore I am” in 1637. John Locke followed in 1690 asserting that selfhood consisted entirely of the continuity of memory. Then, along came Freud, stirring the pot of philosophical conundrum with his concept of the unconscious aspect of memory. Poets, philosophers and psychologists have wrestled with the concepts ever since.

But knowing someone this way doesn’t stop with ourselves. When we think about others and their unique characteristics, we are labeling and judging them chiefly by our memories of them. They are who they are in relation to us primarily though the mechanism of … yep … memory.

That is why Alzheimer’s is often referred to as the long goodbye. Little by little you say goodbye to the person you knew. They forget who you are and eventually they forget who they are.

So are they still that person? Of course they are. And yet … it doesn’t really seem so. Are they someone new? Or just a shell of who they used to be?

It’s sad. It’s scary. It’s hard to wrap your mind around this intersection between memory and the self. It seems that memory is a “necessary but not sufficient” component to describe who we are. As John Henry Newman noted, “A great memory does not make a mind, any more than a dictionary is a piece of literature.”

It’s certainly not all of who you are. After all, we’ve all forgotten stuff, even very important stuff, and we still retain our sense of self. We are still us, albeit with a bit of a mess to clean up or an apology to render for having forgotten something important.

So what is the tipping point? The absolute value of how much we need to remember to still be ourselves?


Psych Pstuff’s Summary

Psychologists divide human memory into various types depending on their origin and function. Declarative (also referred to as explicit) memory is the recollection of specific facts and events that can be consciously recalled. Procedural (also referred to as implicit) memory is a type of unconscious recall whereby skills and how to do things are remembered after they are practiced and learned (learning to walk, ride a bike, type on a QWERTY keyboard).

Episodic memory is the autobiographical memory of personal life events, including all their associated emotions and contextual details. Flashbulb memory is a sub-type of episodic memory that refers to a particular clear and lasting recollection of an extraordinary event, often one shared by a group—such as a newsworthy tragedy or historical moment (assignation of JFK, fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11).

Episodic memories are those that comprise the fabric of one’s life and, consequently, the cumulative sense of self. The Self-Memory System (SMS) is a theoretical construction that attempts to explain the reciprocal and interdependent relationship between memory and the self. Essentially it posits memory as akin to a database for the construction of the self.

Early childhood memory has been likened to a colander with rather large holes. In contrast, the adult memory is likened to a fine-mesh net, able to “catch” and hold onto more from an experience.

Individuals vary widely in their reports of earliest memories—a detail considered highly significant and indicative of a core life view by psychologists of the psychoanalytic tradition. Some people report verified memories from as early as 18 months old, while others recall little before age 8, with the average for most adults being about 3 years old. Early childhood memory has been likened to a colander with rather large holes. Since the neural mechanisms are continuing to develop and no contextual organizing principle exists for these early bits of disconnected information, many (most) leak out through those holes. In contrast, the adult memory is likened to a fine-mesh net, able to “catch” and hold onto more from an experience.

We all know that how we see ourselves is not always completely in line with how others see us. Psychologists have noted that bias and distortion enter into the equation as we construct our view of the self from memories. In other words, we remember things in ways that generally tend to support our preconceived notions of ourselves and others. Psychologist David Rapaport, author of the classic Emotions and Memory, argued that memory should be conceived “not as an ability to revive accurately impressions once obtained, but as the integration of impressions into the whole personality and their revival according to the needs of the whole personality.”

We are, in a sense, a precisely chosen collage of all our episodic memories. A collage—not a complete record—because, in reality, we have forgotten far more than we remember of the sequence of minutes, days and years that make up the life we have lived thus far. A collage because time, perception and bias have served to fold, spindle and mutilate the pure record of our experience. In essence, we are the editors of our autobiographical self.

So, what about false memories? We’ll save that for another day.


Donna Roberts is a native upstate New Yorker who lives and works in Europe. She holds a Ph.D., specializing in the field of Media Psychology. When she is researching or writing she can usually be found at her computer buried in rescue cats.