The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Autobiographical Self

The US psychologist John Kotre focused on autobiographical memory: memory of the infinite sequence of details that creates the story of the self. When we think of ourselves in the distant past, we are often part of the memory: we can see ourselves in the scene. Thus at some point the remembering self (the self as subject) fashions a remembered self (the self as object).

A clue comes from memories that are more vivid than the average. These vivid memories tend to be of three kinds: novel, consequential and emotional events. But there is also a fourth kind of vivid memory, the one that Ulrich Neisser calls "repisode": the symbolic episode that summarizes several preceding episodes. Sometimes a new event stands as a symbol for some pattern that has been going on for years. For example, a gentle gesture by an old friend is a reminder that this friend has always been there to help when needed. The repisode “makes sense” of many previous episodes.

Like Gazzaniga, Kotre believes that the self is due to an "interpreter": it remembers itself as the center of things and makes sense of everything else. This interpreter is both a librarian, who simply archives memories, and a "myth-maker", who creates the myth of the "i".

Kotre points out that the youngest children cannot attribute to others their own qualities. For example, a four-year old boy cannot grasp the idea that his brother has a brother. But one or two years later this becomes obvious. Thus at a certain stage in cognitive development we develop the concept of the "me": we as we are seen by someone else. This opening up of the perspective enables the child to tell stories that are not just self-centered. The "i" is beginning to shape the "me". By the end of the teens, the child has acquired the ability to reflect on herself. The child (now no longer a child) has acquired the ability to create a myth of herself. In the rest of her life, the adult simply continues to refine that "myth". The main task of this myth-making process is to create the sense of continuity: however different my body was when I was a child, that was the same "I" that is now writing these lines. As we develop our myth of ourselves, we also change the memories of ourselves: a memory from the distant past is inevitably affected by the myth we have created of ourselves. The “myth-maker” is as relevant as the “keeper of archives” for the purpose of reconstructing memories. As we get older, the keeper of archives recedes because literal truth is no longer needed, and the myth-maker becomes more and more important in shaping our memories. Thus memories become more mythic and less accurate, but the sense of the self is still preserved. In fact it may be better preserved this way.


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