I want to begin by thanking John Schwenkler for the invitation to share these posts with you about my book Remembering From the Outside: Personal Memory and the Perspectival Mind (Oxford University Press).
Towards the end of the 19th Century, a number of psychologists noted a curious feature of personal memory. Writing about varieties of visual mental imagery and the fact that some people “have the power of combining in a single perception more than can be seen at any one moment by the two eyes”, Francis Galton noted that a “fourth class of persons have the habit of recalling scenes, not from the point of view whence they were observed, but from a distance, and they visualise their own selves as actors on the mental stage” (1883/1907: 68-69). What Galton is describing here is a particular way that many people have of remembering the personal past. Such people remember events from-the-outside, seeing themselves in the remembered scene.
Such perspectival memories were also noted by the French psychologists Victor and Catherine Henri in their study into earliest childhood memories. And, referencing the work by the Henris, Sigmund Freud mentioned this shift in mnemonic point of view when developing his theory of “screen memories”. Screen memories are typically childhood memories that hide or screen desires or fantasies the subject may have. Yet, importantly, even though Freud’s description of an example of a screen memory involves such a detached point of view, it is not this perspectival element that makes it a screen. Memories in which one sees oneself from-the-outside are not necessarily screen memories. Rather, for Freud, screen memories and memories in which one sees oneself in the remembered scene are two separate pieces of evidence that most, if not all, of our childhood memories have been ‘worked over’ and modified.
In the language of modern memory research on episodic or autobiographical memory such images are known as ‘observer memories’ (or ‘observer perspectives’). In observer perspective memories one sees oneself in the remembered scene from-the-outside. In contrast, memories which maintain the original internal point of view, as if seeing the event through one’s own eyes, are called ‘field perspectives’.
There are, of course, individual and even cultural differences in the form our memories take. Some people may exclusively recall events from a field perspective, others from an observer perspective, or typically a mix of both perspectives. Indeed, some people may even lack conscious access to (visual) mental imagery, a phenomenon known as aphantasia. Nonetheless, in general, experimental evidence suggests that field perspectives are more common, with observer perspectives occurring in a substantial minority of memories. Observer perspectives are more prevalent, however, in certain circumstances. Older memories, such as when adults recall events from their childhoods, tend to be recalled from an observer perspective. Observer perspectives are also more common when there is a high degree of emotional self-awareness involved during the original event, such as giving a public talk, or for people who score highly on measures of public self-consciousness and hence are aware of themselves as objects of social appraisal. There is also evidence to suggest that the perspectives are not fixed: a single episode of retrieval may involve both points of view, either by switching back and forth or, intriguingly, holding both perspectives simultaneously.
Despite these consistent empirical findings, however, a number of doubts and misconceptions still linger, especially concerning the status of observer perspectives in memory. How can I see myself in a memory from a point of view that I didn’t occupy at the time of the original event? Can observer memories be genuine? Implicit in these worries seems to lie a preservationist view of memory. Much of the scepticism about remembering from-the-outside stems from such a view, where memory is thought to preserve perceptual content and stores static items for later retrieval. Although not framed in the language of field and observer perspectives, the notion that memory must preserve one’s original point of view, a field perspective, is perhaps traceable to Aristotle’s theory of memory. On one interpretation a memory image is, for Aristotle, a copy of one’s view of the past scene.
In contrast, much recent work in scientific and philosophical studies on memory stresses the reconstructive nature of memory, emphasising that memory is not fixed and immutable but flexible. Contrary to strict preservationism, the reconstructive paradigm offers a multicausal view of the influences on memory content. Memory content can be changed or new content can be generated, often due to the context of retrieval. In this sense, Freud’s insight that observer perspective images have been worked over fits with the dominant view in modern psychology that episodic memory is dynamic and open to change. Memory not only draws on information from the past event, but is alive to the context of the present moment. On some views reconstructive memory can still maintain an appropriate casual connection to the past, which is often taken to distinguish memory from imagination. On other views, however, the empirical evidence on the reconstructive nature of remembering may even undermine the difference between memory and imagination.
Yet, even if memory is malleable and open to change, the perspectival feature of observer memories is a curious one and it raises many questions. Can there be genuine memories which are recalled from an observer perspective? How can past events be recalled from a detached perspective? How is it that the self is observed? And how can we account for the self-presence of such memories? In my book I provide an account of observer perspectives which answers questions such as these, and in this series of posts I sketch my answers to some of them. Having outlined some of the background to observer memories and explained some of the motivation for scepticism about remembering from-the-outside here, in the next post I deal head-on with these worries, answering objections to the claim that observer memories can be genuine.