The story of the self

Auto-noetic consciousness gives us the big picture

Our subjectivity means we can never truly grasp an accurate autobiographical account of ourselves. But we shouldn't be trying to, explains Emma Syea. Auto-noetic consciousness positions the self within a narrative setting that paints the big picture of who we are. 

What if you cannot reliably know yourself? What if the picture you have of yourself as a person, essential to making sense of your experiences and your relations to others, turned out to be systematically mistaken?

HTLGIPhilosopherheader5 SUGGESTED READING Leading philosophers at HowTheLightGetsIn Global By Self-knowledge is crucial for understanding our beliefs, our desires, our attitudes, our motivations, and our values. It sheds light on our interactions with others. It allows us to project forward into the future.  One means by which people try to search for and express a conception of themselves is through the practice of autobiography. By recounting our past experiences, we aim to uncover insights and to build up a picture of ourselves. Through self-documentation, we hope for self-knowledge.

But is this hope misplaced? Trying to grasp the self through such a subjective lens seems problematic – the worry is that any description we give of ourselves will inevitably be distorted by firstly, our perspective and secondly, the unreliability of our memory. Is it actually possible to provide an accurate account of ourselves?

Trying to grasp the self through such a subjective lens seems problematic.

When constructing an autobiography, the assumption is that our memories have been neatly catalogued and archived, their content preserved, ready to be called upon as we wish. Having access to this library of memories implies a sense of control - that we are free to dip in and out of our memories, and that we may use them to assemble a truthful account of our lives.  But, as Virginia Woolf notes, memory is a ‘seamstress, and a capricious one at that’.  Whilst certain types of memory such as procedural memory (responsible for motor skills like knowing how to walk or ride a bike) are reliable, the type of memory implicated in autobiography – episodic memory – is notoriously unreliable. Episodic memories do not tend to manifest as exact reproductions of our past experiences. Instead our experiences are summarised, altered, condensed, and sometimes even censored altogether.

When we look back at our pasts, entire periods can often be summarised by reference to only certain kinds of activities or experiences, like playing with friends during childhood, or feeling lonely in a new town. These sorts of sweeping characterisations of various stages in our lives can be made without us recalling any particular, isolated instances of these experiences or feelings, or without us remembering them clearly and in any great detail. This means that our experiences are condensed, leaving us with the abridged version of our lives.

To further complicate matters, we can be very selective in what we remember due to a variety of systematic biases. Memory biases operate without us being aware of them and can either enhance or inhibit our recall, sometimes even interfering with the content of memories. They can also be resistant to any countervailing evidence. Confirmation biases, for example, involve individuals searching for, interpreting, and recalling information such that their beliefs are confirmed. Egocentric biases meanwhile entail that individuals will remember past experiences in a self-serving manner, better recalling positive information about themselves and neglecting negative material. And consistency biases mean that people will remember their past attitudes and beliefs as congruent with their current attitudes and beliefs. We are therefore very much mistaken if we think we are able to access our memories from a neutral standpoint - what we remember and how we remember it will be determined by our biases, and these may change throughout our lives. How can we trust our memories if this is the case?

Some memories, particularly painful ones, are edited out entirely – it is not uncommon for trauma victims to wipe out distressing experiences. This phenomenon of motivated forgetting occurs when the encoding or retrieval of disturbing content is suppressed by inhibitory control processes mediated by the prefrontal lateral cortex. This process means that there are gaps in our life histories, preventing an exhaustive account of our experiences.

Finally, there is the issue of false memories. Confabulation – the creation of false memories without the intention to deceive oneself or others- has been observed in amnesiacs and is understood as an attempt to ‘fill in the gaps’. But less extreme fabricated memories can also occur in standard everyday cases. Such memories will present fictitious events which often combine essential features of various real events we have experienced in our lives. These false memories will be indistinguishable from real memories, and are neatly inserted among them. 

Total accuracy about our lives is at best tedious and at worst debilitating.

The reality of our past experiences is therefore greatly distorted in a number of ways. Details are misrepresented, left out, and sometimes even invented. Episodic memory, far from preserving the contents of our experiences, instead plays around with them – Woolf observes how ‘memory runs her needle in and out, up and down, hither and thither. We know not what comes next, or what follows after’. This creative aspect of episodic memory means that the notion of our memories existing as discrete moments which can be neatly connected to build up a picture of ourselves is mistaken.

It looks then that, as Proust warns us, ‘remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were’. Should we be disappointed or troubled by this lack of accuracy? And is this a stumbling block for our search for the self?  Not necessarily.

To begin with, we might question the assumption that accuracy is the gold standard. Suppose that there was a way of compiling an exhaustive list of facts about a person’s life, documenting their every experience, no matter how insignificant. Whilst this would certainly generate a body of data relating to that person, it’s not clear that we would learn very much about them from such a list - the sheer amount of data would be overwhelming and much of it would be uninformative, if not tedious.

Suppose now that instead of a list, a narrative could be constructed using the individual’s experiences. The experiences would be interpreted, with the narrative emphasising certain patterns and anomalies, arranging information around significant turning points, and drawing attention to causal links. In place of a list, a story about that person’s life would unfold with various arcs, tensions, and resolutions. This story would be edited so that trivial details were removed, while a degree of artistic licence would permit the odd embellishment.

Why might we prefer a story to a list?

Firstly, we experience a great many things throughout our lives and amass huge quantities of data. Failing to condense and process our experiences risks information overload. Not only does this mean that we wouldn’t be able to draw on our experiences in any useful manner but it also runs the risk of us feeling overwhelmed. In Borges’ short story ‘Funes the Memorious’ the protagonist displays an incredible ability to recall all of his experiences. But Borges hints at the debilitating effect Funes’ memory has upon him - his world is ‘overly replete’. Weighed down by every detail he becomes incapable of any abstract thought or generalisations, and he struggles to sleep. Real life sufferers of hyperthymesia (highly superior autobiographical memory) have reported how the overabundance of memories can be draining to the point where they feel incapacitated. Retaining every single detail of our lives prevents us from moving past events and attending to the present and the future – a certain degree of editing is therefore in our own interests.

The advantages of episodic memory is that through condensing, filtering, and editing, it facilitates dynamic narratives which promote a coherent sense of self.

Secondly, curating information about someone’s life in this way adds colour and arguably gives a better sense of the person – within an overarching narrative, certain personality traits, feelings, and attitudes emerge and contribute to an explanation of why that person is the person they are. By viewing them as the protagonist of the story we can begin to understand what motivates them, what their goals are, and how they see themselves.  This might be difficult to ascertain from a list.

Even without total accuracy, it seems that we are still able to gather valuable insights about ourselves by drawing on episodic memory. One of the main ways in which episodic memory facilitates self-knowledge is by allowing us to re-experience our past and to take up perspectives on it.  A key feature of episodic memory is something called autonoetic-consciousness – where individuals mentally ‘time-travel’ to revisit past experiences and re-engage with them.

So instead of recalling events as mere facts (e.g. when I was seventeen I won a prize in a piano competition), auto-noetic consciousness would involve an element of mental reconstruction such that I re-lived the emotions associated with the event (albeit in a weakened sense) – I might re-engage with the anxiety I felt waiting to hear the announcement of the winner, the sense of preoccupation as I was trying to assess how well I’d played the pieces, the surprise and joy when my name was announced.

Proust remarks how ‘one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past’. By re-visiting this experience, I might be able to better understand those emotions and how that event was formative – I can evaluate the experience and adopt a perspective on it. I can start to see what kind of bearing that experience had on my current projects and goals.

Auto-noetic consciousness thus provides me with content with which to construct a personal narrative. This narrative provides me with a way of orientating myself – I gain perspectives which allow me to see reasons for my behaviour, to take responsibility for my actions, and to understand what may have led to certain decisions.

When it comes to autobiography and searching for the self, a wholly accurate account of our lives is not possible. There is no way of preserving and recalling every single detail of our past experiences. But is an exhaustive record really what we are after? Total accuracy about our lives is at best tedious and at worst debilitating. The advantages of episodic memory is that through condensing, filtering, and editing, it facilitates dynamic narratives which promote a coherent sense of self (dialling down troubling moments and highlighting triumphant occasions). The opportunity to re-visit our past which auto-noetic consciousness affords allows us to take up perspectives on it and to learn from it, meaning that these narratives can be refined and revised as we go through our lives.  

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