In a previous post I discussed a puzzling aspect of memory imagery: when remembering events from one’s life one often sees the remembered scene as one originally experienced it, from one’s original point of view (field perspective). Sometimes, however, one sees oneself in the memory, as if one were an observer of the remembered scene (observer perspective). Memory imagery often involves visual points of view.
Here, I summarise a recent paper I gave on this topic at the Australasian Association of Philosophy Conference, held at Macquarie University. My paper was entitled ‘Constructing and Reconstructing Observer Perspectives in Personal Memory’.
I outline two related arguments against observer perspective memories: the argument from perceptual impossibility and the argument from perceptual preservation. On these ways of thinking, there simply cannot be genuine personal or episodic memories in which one adopts an observer perspective.
According to the argument from perceptual impossibility, given that one did not (indeed cannot) see oneself from-the-outside at the time of the original experience, one cannot have a memory in which one sees oneself from-the-outside: one cannot recall from an observer perspective. Further, even if one grants that it is unrealistic to think that memory perfectly preserves past perceptions, the argument from perceptual preservation states that nothing can be added to the content of genuine memory: forgetting is a natural aspect of memory and content may be lost, but genuine memory will involve no additional content other than that available at the time of encoding. Observer perspectives are said to involve an additional representation of the self and hence cannot be genuine memories.
Most people who recall an event from an observer perspective simply take themselves to be remembering. But if one takes oneself to be remembering, and one is accurately representing some past event in all aspects other than occupying the original point of view, what motivates the claim that such representations are not genuine memories? The answer seems to lie in the idea that memory should preserve the content of perception. In perception one sees an event unfold from a particular point of view. Therefore memory, involving reproductions of perception, should be recalled from the same point of view as one had on the original scene. In other words, genuine memories should be recalled from a field perspective.
Yet there is now a broad consensus that memory is constructive and reconstructive (see Schacter and Addis 2007) rather than reproductive. Personal memory is dynamic and flexible rather than fixed and immutable, and the point of view from which one recalls an event is variable.
I respond to both objections to genuine observer perspective memories by drawing on insights gained from thinking about the reconstructive nature of memory. Drawing on the work of Kourken Michaelian (2011) and Joseph W. Alba and Lynn Hasher (1983), I outline two compatible frameworks for thinking about how observer perspectives in memory are (re)constructed: the Reconstructive framework emphasises that observer perspectives can be reconstructed at the time of retrieval; the Constructive framework argues that observer perspectives may be constructed at the time of encoding.
According to the Reconstructive framework memory content can be changed or new memory content can be generated, often due to the context of retrieval in the present. I develop this framework by appealing to the work of Dorothea Debus (2007), Peter Goldie (2012), and Michaelian (2011). According to this framework, observer perspectives would reflect a change in mnemonic content occurring upon retrieval. In the memory literature this is typically how observer perspectives are thought to occur.
The Constructive framework acknowledges the fact that the content of memory may reflect the multiplicity of information that may be encoded during the past original event. I develop the Constructive framework by drawing on the complex literature on spatial cognition and the integration of egocentric and allocentric representations (e.g., O’Keefe 1993). On this framework, observer perspectives could be constructed at the moment of encoding, at the time of the original event. This is not to suggest that the content of memory will be fixed forever at encoding, but that certain aspects of the information attended to and encoded during an experience will tend to result in observer (or field) perspective imagery.
I defend the possibility of genuine personal memories in which one adopts an observer perspective. I do so by invoking the insights of both the Reconstructive and Constructive frameworks. I claim, contra the perceptual impossibility argument, that one need not see oneself in perceptual experience in order to ‘see’ oneself in memory. Further, I argue, against the perceptual preservation argument, that nothing need be added to the content of observer perspective memory.
In so doing I open up the space for genuine personal memories that are recalled from an observer perspective. Let me end by insisting that my claim is not that all cases of observer perspective memories will be completely accurate or genuine instances of personal memory. The claim is rather that visual perspective alone is not a guide to whether a memory image is a genuine memory or not.