Forgetting To Be Me

Why is memory so vital for our sense of self?

Memory forms the very fabric of our selves. Yet we forget vastly more than we remember, and we embellish until we no longer trust our own minds. Should we accept that true memory is a fantasy? Does this risk chaos in our courts or liberate us to think ourselves and our culture anew?

Philosopher and classicist Angie Hobbs is Chair for the Public Understanding of Philosophy at Sheffield, and a frequent contributor to the BBC’s In Our Time, Night Waves and The Forum. She is the author of Plato and the Hero and is currently working on a new edition of Plato’s Symposium.

Here she speaks to the IAI about memory, identity, and why life has no meaning without narrative structures.


In the debate on IAI TV, you said that memory is essential for our sense of identity, regardless of whether memories are accurate.

Yes. For example, I could have a false memory from my childhood, based on something that didn’t actually happen, but something that somebody told me had happened. If I’ve grown up with that false memory for 50 years, it’s going to play a huge part in my sense of who I am and where I come from, what matters to me and what my values are – despite the fact that it’s not based on external reality.

But then I might subsequently be informed that, in fact, this event that I remember did not take place. I never did meet, say, my father, for the only time in my life when I was two years old, as I had always thought I had done. In fact, I never did meet him at all. This could potentially have a profound impact on my sense of self, my personal story and my history.

We use memories to create narrative structures for ourselves, and the narratives of our lives. If those narratives are then disrupted through the revelation that a memory is false, then that is going to be very disorientating for us. This needn’t necessarily be negative; there might be positive effects too.

What is important to point out is that this relationship between our sense of identity and memory goes both ways. Not only do memories create our sense of ourselves, but also it’s our sense of self – and who we are, what matters to us, even beyond our sense of self – that creates our memories. As Margaret Heffernan said in the debate we unconsciously edit our experiences all the time. In the first instance, there is then a reasonable amount of unconscious decision-making about what we remember or don’t remember. Experiences become memories and stay memories, but some experiences never become memories or are short-lived memories and then are forgotten. It’s a two-way relationship. Our memories create who we are, but then who we are creates our memories. And who we are then also blocks out certain memories.

This is because “Who we are” includes not just our conscious sense of self, but everything to do with our ethical and psychological structures – that would also block out certain memories. Take my father as an example. There were experiences that occurred in the war that he could not deal with until the last years of life, so as a survival mechanism he blocked them out – partly consciously and partly unconsciously. So, when you’re trying to work out who somebody is, of course it’s important to ask them about their memories, but it’s also important to try and find out about their history and to see if there are any memories that they’ve deliberately or unconsciously dropped.

You mention narrative structures. Why are these important? Why do we seem to need a sense of narrative in order to understand who we are?

It is crucial for us to think that our lives have some kind of meaning. As a result, we will instinctively look at our lives in terms of various narrative structures. That is one of the reasons why we are so drawn to stories and to myths: we need them not just for enjoyable entertainment but because, rightly or wrongly, we use them to make sense of our own lives and give our own lives some kind of narrative structure and sense of direction.

Some have argued that this is false – that we impose false narratives onto the messy chaos of our lives. Some have argued that it is up to each of us to create the narrative sense of our lives. Nietzsche or Foucault, for example, would say that it is up to us. We have all these messy, daily experiences, but it is up to us to make some kind of sense out of them. It is up to us to create a narrative. The kinds of memories we create and block are crucial components of that narrative structure.

We instinctively look to role models and we look to stories, histories, and myths to help us do this. When we’re trying to understand somebody, not just their own sense of self, then we will look at the narrative of their memories, as well as their false memories and their blocked memories, because those will be absolutely crucial to understanding their story.

Plato was mentioned a number of times in the debate on IAI TV. What especially interests you about Plato’s theory of memory in the context of learning and teaching?

We may not agree with Plato that teaching is about eliciting memories of previous existences, because we may not agree with him that the soul is immortal or that it goes through various incarnations. But what’s really important is Plato’s notion that teaching is trying to help somebody discover what’s already inside them. For Plato, teaching is in a sense an elicitation, a drawing out – literally in the Latin verb, educo, meaning “I lead out” or “I draw out” (from somebody).

In Plato’s conception, a teacher is not simply dealing with a student as an empty vessel waiting to have wisdom poured into them. That’s not how it works, that’s not what learning or teaching is about. Learning involves in part an attempt to discover, unpack and bring to the surface things that are already within you.

It’s not necessary to believe in Plato’s theory of the soul and reincarnation to appreciate that what he says about education is important both for educators and, later, for psychoanalysis.

Because it’s no accident that Plato is Freud’s favourite philosopher – he referred to him as “the divine Plato”. Freud thinks that he gets a lot of his theories of the unconscious from Plato, although in fact Plato does not have a fully articulated theory of the unconscious. But Plato does have the idea of memories buried within us, and Freud would say that a psychoanalyst can help to bring these out.

Mark Rowlands has talked about a theory of Plato’s in a later dialogue, called Theaetetus, about making imprints upon soft wax which then hardens. This is true in the Theaetetus but it not a theory that Plato always holds about memory. In the Symposium, for example, he presents a theory that is closer to Rowlands’, where he says that memories are continually fading, and to keep them alive we continually have to rehearse them in our minds to keep them fresh. The act of memory is actually an act of continual recreation: our memories are always soft wax, we always have to keep reprinting, and the wax never hardens.

This view of memory is quite different from the one that Rowlands was quoting from the Theaetetus. It’s a view of memory that’s actually closer to the views about teaching cited above. Though some psychologists might believe that some of these memories are best left alone. Not everyone agrees that it is best to get everything to the surface.

That is why my father’s generation’s view was interesting. I remember my father once said: “I know your generation thinks that my generation is anally retentive and that we refuse to pour our emotions out. But if you had been through what we’ve been through, then you could not get through your life unless you kept certain things buried, at least for certain periods.”

This is no longer a fashionable view, but it is worth bringing into the discussion, because it raises the question: is it always helpful to recover all memories? Margaret Heffernan had an interesting view that chimed with my father’s – that, psychologically, we can’t deal with all memories at once, or all memories at a given time. We deal with what we are able to deal with. Sometimes it’s a defence mechanism. Sometimes these memories need to come out later, but perhaps sometimes not. That is why it is interesting to question the current, general assumption that it’s always healthy to bring everything out into the open, that if you leave things buried they will damage you. I’m not a psychiatrist. I don’t know the truth of that, but I think it’s important to look at the views of people like my father who went through much worse experiences than most of us have gone through. He said: “I knew that if I wanted to build a happy life I had to leave a lot of things behind.” He had to work at it on a daily basis, and sometimes things came to the surface and distressed him very greatly. As he got older and they became more distant he was able to bring some of them to the surface himself and deal with them. But for at least 40 years of his life he didn’t do that. Maybe that was his way of dealing with really traumatic memories, and it allowed him to be a good father and have a good life. He didn’t want to be going over everything daily, he didn’t understand the need for continual re-enactment. He wouldn’t attend medal ceremonies, for example. He didn’t have much to do with the annual 11/11 ceremonies. He’d say that a lot of old soldiers don’t do commemorations of war and battles, because they know how ghastly it is and they just want to leave it and forget about it.

As I said, this is perhaps not a fashionable view. I don’t know if he’s right, but I suspect our minds and bodies do have an instinct for self-preservation, and maybe sometimes we do deal with things in that way. Clearly in some cases, if somebody is suffering real mental illness and torment because of some buried child abuse, for example, and they don’t know that’s why they’re ill, there are cases where it’s crucial to get buried memories out so that people can deal with them and be helped and can heal. But my father wasn’t mentally ill: he was coping with life and had a mainly happy life. So, yes, maybe we should drag the ghastly memories to the surface, if blocking them is clearly inhibiting our ability to move on and be healthy, whole, functioning human beings. But what about those who are – for the most part – healthy, whole, functioning human beings? In such cases, maybe my father’s generation view – “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” – is appropriate. Maybe there’s something we can learn from that.

To sum up: one needs to distinguish two things: firstly, is memory crucial for personal identity? In which case, if somebody gets Alzheimer’s when they’re older, for example, have you really lost the person? Are they in fact no longer who they were before? This question addresses the sense of them literally not being the same person, which has implications on, for example, marriage vows.

Then, secondly, there are much broader questions about how memories (or the absence of them) relate to our sense of who we are. In what ways do memories create who we are in an ethical and psychological sense? And in what way are these memories themselves created by who we are in that sense? It’s important to understand that this is a two-way relationship.   And it was chiefly this second set of questions that we were talking about in this debate.. And, as we have seen, if we want to understand someone we should not just look at what they remember (and mis-remember), but also by what they have blocked from their memory. To change any of those things is to change the narrative of who they are in ways which may initially be quite disturbing for them.

Whether it’s for good or bad, if people are changing that narrative they are very likely to need help in that stage of the process, even if they’re changing the narrative in a way that’s ultimately going to be healthy. It’s important to realise that, whatever the eventual outcome, such a change of personal narrative may be traumatic, which of course has implications for mental healthcare and for how we deal with our friends and family. For the duration of that process, those people will need our help and support.

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