Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Constructing and Reconstructing Observer Perspectives in Personal Memory

This post is by Chris McCarroll (pictured above), who has just finished his PhD under the supervision of John Sutton at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Macquarie University. Here he summarises a paper currently in progress entitled 'Constructing and Reconstructing Observer Perspectives in Personal Memory'.

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.


  1. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for this great post! I find skepticism about observer memory quite compelling, in particular, worries arising from perceptual impossibility: you did not and cannot see yourself from the outside at the time of the experience, so any ‘memory’ which has that perspective can’t be a memory after all. You respond to the worry here by noting that ordinary memory is constructive and reconstructive rather than reproductive. That seems to me to respond to the point that one DID NOT experience the event from the observer perspective, presumably the thought is in many (all?) cases of memory, given that it is constructed or reconstructed, we did not experience the event as we remember it. And so one’s not having experienced an event as the putative memory indicates, is not a strike against that being a genuine case of memory.

    However, I think there’s a residual worry about the ‘cannot’ part of the perceptual impossibility objection. I CANNOT see myself from the outside at the time of the experience, and so any memory which has that perspective can’t be a memory after all. Now if we take this version of the objection in a modal spirit, it seems to me that appealing to reconstruction as it occurs in memory doesn’t help, since, at the very least, in field perspective memory even if it is the result of constructive and reconstructive processes, it COULD HAVE BEEN THE CASE, that the event was experienced just as it is presented in memory. And that seems to be an important difference between observer and field memories which doesn’t get fixed by appeal to reconstruction. It’s a modal difference identifying a feature putative observer memories could never have. So I was just wondering whether you think this worry is a more serious one for the observer memory proponent? Does it matter that putative cases of observer memories are such that they COULD NEVER represent the event as it was actually experienced? Whereas it is at least POSSIBLE that field memories could.

    1. Chris McCarroll15 March 2016 at 22:26

      Hi Ema,

      Thanks for this fantastic question. It’s an interesting way of articulating the scepticism about observer perspectives.

      I can accept that one cannot ‘see’ oneself from the outside at the time of the experience, if ‘see’ is understood as a direct visual perception. But I would still want to hold out for the *possibility* of observer perspective *experiences*. Nigro and Neisser write about such experiences:

      'Both of us (the authors) can attest to the possibility of experiencing events from a “detached” perspective as they occur. In such instances we are conscious of how the entire scene would appear (or does appear in fact) to an onlooker who sees us as well as our surroundings...It is not clear how these experiences are best interpreted- whether as a nonegocentric form of direct perception in Gibson’s (1979) sense or as the products of instantaneous reconstruction-but it is clear that they exist. Immediate experience can be either 0 [observer] or F [field]. Thus not all observer memories are produced by mnemonic distortion'(1983: 468-469).

      My response to perceptual impossibility is to develop the second strand of Nigro and Neisser's interpretation of observer perspective experiences. I suggest that one need not directly perceive oneself from the outside to have a subsequent observer memory. But, even at the time of the original experience one can adopt an external or non-egocentric perspective on oneself. I can accept that it is impossible to ‘see’ oneself from the outside, but I suggest that non-egocentric information can be used in the construction and reconstruction of (genuine) observer perspective memories. And this information can be available at the time of the original experience.

      In developing these claims in the paper, I suggest that perceptual experience may involve encoding both egocentric (canonically viewpoint-dependent) and allocentric (canonically viewpoint-independent) information. This information can be then used in the construction of field and observer perspective memories. This idea of rich encoding can help us understand how *both* field and observer perspectives are subject to the same constructive processes.

      I also look at the interaction and integration of these multiple sources of information. Information gained from one modality may be translated into, or combined with, information from a distinct modality. I argue that the representation of the self in observer perspective memories may result from this multimodal integration of information. On my view the information available to memory at the time of encoding is much richer and more complex than a simple passive reception of sensory data.

      I also think this way of thinking helps to explain some of the empirical evidence on field and observer perspectives. For example, the evidence that observer perspectives are more common when one engages in an activity that involves a high degree of emotional self-awareness, such as giving a public talk (Nigro & Neisser 1983; Robinson & Swanson 1993). In such cases the context of encoding is important. I suggest that for experiences such as these, observer perspective imagery and its use of non-egocentric information will better represent how the event was actually experienced. Rather than attending to the visual information one was attending to non-egocentric information, and because this information was more salient it is used in the construction of observer perspective imagery.

      I hope this goes some way to answering your question. Thanks again.



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