Thursday, 19 March 2015

Observer Memory: Interview with John Sutton

John Sutton
I interviewed John Sutton, Professor of Cognitive Science at the ARC Centre for Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders at Macquarie University, Sydney. John is interested in memory, skill, and distributed cognition, and in his work he seeks to integrate philosophical, psychological, and historical ideas and methods. This is the second in a series of three posts, you can read the first here.

ES-B: What is observer memory? 

JS: When I think about some experience I had, maybe a mundane event like having lunch yesterday with a lot of people, I can sometimes see myself in the remembered scene. So instead of being behind my own eyes when I remember that lunch yesterday, seeing my knife and fork coming up to my face as I eat, instead I can be looking at myself in the memory from an external perspective, and that is why we use the phrase ‘observer perspective’. It is as if I am above the group: I see them all and I see myself there in some way as part of that group. We contrast the notion of an observer perspective with a field perspective in which you are seeing the events in memory from your own original field of vision. The field perspective is probably for most people more common and some people seem to have only a field perspective.

ES-B: Might it be that field memories are felt to be more reliable representations of, or relations to, the past, on the grounds that the remembered scene is remembered as it was experienced, or at least, closer to that ideal? 

JS: I think that is pretty much right. These are not deterministic relationships, these are tendencies and they vary across people, but as you say, memories in which I experience the past event from a field perspective may be more reliable. What we are more sure about is that they tend to be more common with more recent past events, and we do not really know why but that is a pretty robust result: the longer ago the event was—certainly for adults having memories from their childhood, but even for adults having memories from their adulthood when there is enough of a gap—the more likely they are to come up from an observer perspective. So independently, there is some (imperfect) correlation between the age of the event remembered and the reliability, but we are not sure, it is an important theoretical question whether there is any more direct connection between reliability and perspective than that, that is one of the driving questions of our project.

ES-B: Why do you think that correlation roughly holds? 

JS: I think that is a very good question, we do not know, and one of the interesting things is that it is only all else being equal. So, in a way other interesting results about the differences are that memories from the observer perspective tend to occur when there is some kind of self-consciousness, or self-awareness, or unusual importance to the event. So if it is an event in which you feel a bit self-conscious at the time, you are more likely to remember that from an external perspective, and also at the time of recall if you are asked or in some way if you are now in a self-conscious frame of mind, you will also be more likely to remember that event from an observer perspective. So it is a general kind of externalising or abstracting, or perhaps to put it in a slightly more positive way, a narrativising mechanism perhaps, a way of putting yourself in a scene, in which you can take a slightly more distant perspective than the field perspective in which you are immersed in the event.

ES-B: What would you say to someone who was sceptical about whether the phenomenon of observer memory is properly memory? On the grounds that a particular kind of causal relation is required for memory, the remembered event has to be experienced, say, and observer ‘memories’ do not meet that condition? 

JS: I think that is a really important challenge. Here are a couple of things I would say. One is that I think the burden of proof is on the sceptic in this case. I think that for most people who have these experiences there is no systematic or significant phenomenological difference. And many people report the ability to switch—if you ask a seminar group to do this most people say ‘yeah I am able to switch’, and they do not suddenly feel that they are engaging in some entirely different process. This means that if somebody like myself who thinks there probably can be genuine observer memories can diffuse any specific objections, then I think the default assumption should be that all else being equal, we should think observer memories are genuine memories, they are at least as likely to be genuine memories, as any.

I would want to defend a causal theory of memory and to agree that in order to be remembering a past experience now there have to be certain kinds of causal connections between the representations I was having at the time and the representations I am having now. But I take a broader view of what that requires in two ways. One is connected to expanding the notion of experience so that we are not just thinking of visual spatial experience but experience more generally, and think of the past event remembered as a complex structured event or sequence of events or a structured scene. So now what is required for the causal connection to give me a memory is that the scene remembered has to be the scene that occurred. 

The second respect in which I would broaden the causal theory of memory is that I do not require identity of content to be preserved from the past experience to the present recall, I want to allow for losses of content, for selectivity. I think most people allow for that because otherwise the idea of remembering the whole truth of what happened in the past is a very high bar, but I also want to allow for some transformations within the content of the remembered scene, providing that they do not cross some bar. There is not an objective way of setting that bar, it is dependent on your explanatory purposes. If you are in a court of law for example, the bar tends to be set much higher than when you are having a chat about a funny experience you had with your friend.

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