Thursday, 16 January 2014

Epistemic Innocence (part 5)

This is the last in a series of posts on epistemic innocence, and it is about memory. In the context of dementia and other psychiatric disorders featuring serious memory impairments, some distorted memories seem to present us with a trade-off between accuracy and wellbeing.

Autobiographical memories are often distorted to fill gaps in knowledge about the past, or are distorted in a self-enhancing way, and thus such memory reports may increase one's self-confidence and ultimately one's wellbeing if they go unchallenged. However, the price to pay is that memory reports lack correspondence with reality, and this compromises the person’s knowledge of her past.

In the project, we argue that it is too simplistic to embrace the trade-off view, because distorted memories can carry significant epistemic benefits that would be unattainable without such memories. To characterise the status of cognitions that are inaccurate, but also epistemically beneficial, we are developing the notion of epistemic innocence. We shall defend the view that some distorted memories have good epistemic-innocence potential.

What epistemic benefit could distorted memories have? There is some evidence that distorted memories contribute to construction or preservation of a sense of self, especially in the presence of serious memory deficits. Jetten and colleagues argue that accuracy of memory is not necessarily predictive of wellbeing and some memory illusions can serve to preserve mental health. In the context of severe memory loss, people can lose access to accurate autobiographical memories, but maintain the capacity to construct a new identity. Although the work concentrates on the benefits of memory distortions and fabrications for wellbeing and mental health, indirect benefits for the acquisition of true beliefs could be hypothesised. The reduction of stress and anxiety caused by the fading memories, and the new confidence obtained via a reconstruction of one's identity can make one more eager and able to interact with one's social and physical environment.

The very inspiring work by Fotopoulou further confirms this insight. When she talks about confabulation, she acknowledges that confabulations have "poor correspondence of reality", but she also points out that they "represent attempts to define one's self in time and in relation to the world". If we recognise that loss of autobiographical memory (in the context of dementia or brain damage) impairs epistemic functionality as well as mental health and wellbeing, then the capacity to form a new identity on the basis of inaccurate memories might restore not just mental health and wellbeing to some extent, but also the self-confidence and the social interactions instrumental to the acquisition and exchange of true beliefs.

In practice, psychological and epistemic benefits may depend on the extent to which (1) distorted memories and confabulations preserve some important truth about the agent that she and the people around her can identify and rely on; (2) alternative sources of information about the self that are more accurate than the distorted memories or the confabulated narratives are genuinely available to the agent. In some situations (advanced dementia), it would seem that the alternative to a false self would be no self at all.

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