Monday, July 10, 2017

Personal identity and memory

The author's memory

What makes a person P2 at time t2 the same person as person P1 at time t1? Following Locke (1689/1975), in contemporary analytical philosophy, this question is usually answered in psychological terms, to wit by specifying a psychological criterion that shows, when continuity or connectedness between P1 en P2 exists: Memory. Although currently memory is no longer seen as the only criterion of personal identity, it is still considered an important determinant of personal identity over time. As a rule reference is made to only episodic memory, so to certain events or experiences in the life of the individual concerned. Other kinds of memory, like semantic memory and implicit non-conscious kinds of memory, are generally ignored by the mainstream of personal identity theorists when they consider what makes a person a person. So it is episodic memory that makes that the little schoolboy who went to school in a provincial capital in the Netherlands is the same person as the man who writes this blog on one of the first days of July 2017. Of course, everybody forgets many of his or her life experiences, but personal identity theorists have thought out several solutions for overcoming this problem of forgetfulness. But is episodic memory really a reliable criterion for personal identity?
When someone forgets about what s/he did or experienced in the past, determining the personal identity is a matter of reconstructing the connection between the person who acted in a certain way some time ago or who experienced then this or that and the person who s/he is now. However, if s/he explicitly remembers what s/he did it seems obvious that the person in the memory and the person now who remembers are the same. But is it really so that we can say that what a man or woman remembers now as something that s/he lived through or experienced some time ago makes him or her the same person as the one in the recollection?
Much has already been written about the unreliability of our memory but I think that the next investigation well substantiates my point:
Memory expert Julia Shaw selected a group of test subjects for what was allegedly a study on emotional memory. First she asked each participant about his or her memory of a true emotional event which Shaw had learned from a person who had informed her about the participant. It might be being bullied at school, fainting on vacation or something else. Next Shaw introduced a false event, telling the test subjects they did something that she knew they actually did not, like telling the participants that they had committed a crime with police contact – assault, assault with a weapon, or theft – or had experienced another emotional event – an animal attack, a bodily injury, losing a large sum of money or getting in trouble with their parents. Shaw did as if someone the test subject knew, like his/her parents, had informed her about the event. At first the participants said correctly that they didn’t remember the event. After a visualisation exercise, which gave the test subjects access to their imagination instead of their memories – which they didn’t know – the participants still hadn’t much to tell about the event. Then they were sent home with the instruction not to talk about the test and to try to visualise the memory at home. One week later in a second interview the test subjects were asked to tell both about the true emotional event and about the false event. Many participants began to “remember” and report of details of the false event. The visualisation exercise was also repeated. Next the participant were sent home again with the instruction of trying to get more details of the false event. One week later in a third interview the second interview session was repeated. “After three interviews”, so Shaw, “... many participants are divulging a tremendous number of details about an event that never happened, talking about them with confidence.” In other words: The false events had really become part of the memories of the test subjects. Don’t think that only exceptional persons “recollect” false memories. Shaw found in her investigations that at least 70% of the participants develop full false memories about criminal and emotional events. Most of us will do in the right circumstances.
Perhaps you think that Shaw’s case is extreme. Maybe it is, but as Shaw shows in her book: Everybody’s mind is probably full of false memories. There are many reasons why we get them and it is unlikely that anybody is free of them.
What does this mean for the view that episodic memory is the most important determinant of man’s personal identity as the mainstream of personal identity theorists maintains? On the base of a false memory each of us could be a criminal while s/he is in fact a honest burgher. Even more, as Shaw makes clear, it also happens often that we adopt recollections told to us by others as if they were our own. If so this would mean – following the mainstream of the personal identity theorists – that such a recollection would give the person with the adopted recollection the personal identity of another person, at least partly. It would literally put him or her in someone else’s shoes. The upshot is: What we remember may be important for us but it doesn’t make our identities. Only what we really lived through and experienced does, but it’s not obvious that we remember all of it nor that we lived through and experienced everything that we remember.

- John Locke, An essay concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975 (1689).
- Noonan, Harold W., Personal Identity. London etc.: Routledge, 2003.
- Shaw, Julia, The memory illusion. London: Random House Books, 2016. You can find the case described on pp. 171-175.

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