Tuesday, 17 February 2015

What are the Benefits of Memory Distortion?

This is the third in our series of posts on the papers published in a special issue of Consciousness and Cognition on the Costs and Benefits of Imperfect Cognitions. Here Jordi Fern├índez summarises his paper 'What are the Benefits of Memory Distortion'.

There are two intuitively appealing thoughts about episodic (or experiential) memory. One of them is that our memories are supposed to reproduce the contents of some of our past experiences, namely, those in which our memories originate. The other one is that our memories can be beneficial for us in a number of ways. They can, for example, help us make sense of how we feel and behave towards people and situations from our past. What is the connection between these two aspects of memory? One might think that memories are only beneficial for us to the extent that they reproduce the contents of some of our past experiences.

In this paper, though, I describe two possible scenarios in which this is not true. In both scenarios, a memory can be beneficial for the subject despite being distorted. In one case, the memory is that of a scene pictured from the point of view of an observer of (as opposed to a participant in) it. In the psychological literature, these are often called 'observer memories' (as opposed to 'field memories'). Given that, originally, the subject of an observer memory witnessed, or experienced, the scene from that point of view of a participant in the scene, it seems that the observer memory is distorted. But one can think of a situation in which this is beneficial for the subject. In fact, one can think of a type of benefit such that, in order for the memory to be beneficial for the subject in that way, the memory had to be distorted. There are reasons to think that field memories have phenomenal properties that observer memories lack. Sensorily, and emotionally, field memories are richer than observer memories. If this is right, then it seems possible for an observer memory to help its subject to achieve a certain 'distancing' from an event in the past. If that event was traumatic for the subject, one can see how this may be beneficial for the subject since, in that case, the subject will be spared from reliving the event all over again in memory.


In another case, the memory is that of an episode of abuse that never happened. It is, in that sense, a fabricated memory. Since there is no such thing as the experience in which that memory originates, it seems that the fabricated memory of abuse is distorted. But one can think of a situation in which it may be beneficial for the subject to have such a memory. Given the harmful effects of having fabricated memories of abuse, this is admittedly harder than in the observer memory case. Nonetheless, it is possible. One can think of a situation in which the fabricated memory of abuse serves a purpose for the subject. Perhaps it allows the subject to make sense of why she feels anger towards a person despite having no apparent reason for it. In that case, the memory is carrying a certain benefit for the subject despite being distorted.

What does this mean for the pair of intuitive thoughts about memory mentioned above? It is tempting to think that these cases illustrate that the first of the two thoughts is simply wrong: Memories are not supposed to reproduce the contents of past experiences. In the last part of the paper, I explore the consequences of pursuing this path. It turns out that if we accept that memories do not need to match some of our past experiences, then it is very hard to explain how they can provide us with knowledge of our past. And that is a type of benefit from our memories that we should not give up so easily. A more nuanced conclusion is that memories are supposed to do various things. They are supposed to match some of our past experiences, which is why they can provide us with knowledge of our past. And the fact that the two types of memories above do not match our past experiences explains our intuition that they are distorted. But, at the same time, our memories are supposed to furnish us with a coherent sense of self.

And this explains why we have the intuition that the two types of memories mentioned above are serving a purpose for the subject. In different ways, they are helping the subject cope with some past events either from an explanatory perspective or from an emotional perspective. What cases of memory distortion teach us about memory, therefore, is that memory is supposed to do various things but, interestingly, not all the functions that memory has need to be successfully carried out at the same time.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated.