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Personal Identity: Meanings over Memories
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Tue, Apr 30th 2013
My late Uncle Brian once told me, "My future is my past." Though he could be pretty curmudgeonly at times, he was also one of the most sentimental people I've ever known.
A memory from his life wasn't just a factual recollection; it was a window into his soul. As he told stories about playing spinner baseball as a boy (and if you don't know what that is, Google it, because I can't explain it nearly as well as Uncle Brian could), making a difference in a student's life (he was a tenured chemistry professor), or hitting a superfecta at Churchill Downs (and he hit quite a few), he shared much more than the chronological details of these adventures and accomplishments. Instead, he made clear that these stories meant something to him. They defined who he was, in all of his complexity of joy, sadness, pride, and regret. And because of that, they should mean something to us, too.
"My future is my past." I think what Uncle Brian meant was that the meanings he attached to his memories were so powerful that he could not separate them from his day-to-day feelings, actions, or philosophy. And he knew on some level that for him, it would always be this way.
Granted, this is not true for everyone. I know people who prefer to identify as little as possible with their past. Others seem to have no trouble letting go of difficult memories while embracing the positive ones. But the common denominator for all of us is that there are two levels of memories from which we can choose to apply to the minutiae and major events of our lives.
These levels were recently described in a research study published in the journal Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience. The researchers called the first level "autobiographical remembering." This simply involves recalling the concrete content of an event - in other words, the straight, factual details. The second level was called "autobiographical reasoning." This entails reflecting on the broader meaning of a memory and the implications of the memory for defining oneself and one's values.
In the study, brain imaging was used to show that we really do use different parts of our brain for autobiographical remembering and autobiographical reasoning. I can see why. Making meaning out of our memories takes work, even if we do it without truly being aware of it. It requires energy to integrate both good and bad times into our psyche in order to continually define and redefine our identities. It takes so much energy that we probably need to relegate some memories to autobiographical remembering so we can quickly deal with them and move on.
But Uncle Brian taught me a poignant lesson about autobiographical reasoning. While his future was his past, it wasn't because of some metaphysical truth about memory and time. It was because the meanings he attached to his memories yoked his future - and all of its possibilities - ever so tightly to his days of long ago. That was his choice. What choice will you make?
D'Argembeau, A., Cassol, H., Phillips, C., Balteau, E., Salmon, E., & Van der Linden, M. (2013). Brains creating stories of selves: The neural basis of autobiographical reasoning. Social, Cognitive, & Affective Neuroscience, Advance Access, doi: 10.1093/scan/nst028