Remembering From the Outside: An Introduction

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).

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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.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you for your post, Mr. McCaroll. It sparks thoughts in various directions.

    For one, it makes me think about how much episodic memory becomes narrative with time. How it takes on the language of drama or cinema, with heroes (usually the self) and villains. How it combines ‘what happened’ with ‘how I felt about what happened’ with ‘what I later thought about what happened’. Memory is there, after all, to help us learn from our past. So I guess it’s not surprising that upon retrieval, the memory becomes transformed, to help provide a clearer and more simple lesson for later. It was always just a movie, for later reflection, so if the movie can become improved, with the help of imagination, to take on the feeling of objective truth (and even an ‘objective’ viewpoint), then the brain may value the simple useful memory over the accurate one.

    And a quick autobiographical note on that subject: my mom and my sister argue, every time they are together, about how they remember things differently from their mutual past. What stands out is that, despite the fact that my sister is deaf, she will often describe other peoples’ non-signed conversations, as if she had actually heard them. She seems to have ‘filled-in’ a lot of details from her childhood, in order to reinforce the overall themes, which support her personal identity.

    And finally, it makes me thing about the mental habit of trying to take on other people’s perspectives, to imagine what the self appears like to others. That’s something that I find my brain trying to do, all the time. And even though it is literally impossible to accurately imagine someone else’s perspective, I find that perspectival simulation to be compelling, and to feel legitimate. It’s only when I stand back and query my epistemological limitations that it becomes clear that I’m just making stuff up.

    I can easily imagine that a memory could cobble together the actual subjective experience of an event with that imagined other’s perspective, and thereby create a hybrid narrative.

    Thanks again!

    • Christopher McCarroll

      Hi Matt,
      Thanks for your message! I’m glad the post sparked some thoughts, and I like the ideas you suggest about memory. I think that, in a lot of cases, such observer memories do involve a degree of narrativisation of our pasts, and that they will be influenced by what we now think about the past event, and that we do fill in a lot of the details. I will also go on to suggest in later posts, however, that such memories may involve adopting an external perspective on oneself at the time of the original event, during events in which one was emotionally self-aware, for example. Indeed, even though we can, as you suggest, take on (in imagination) the perspective of someone else in order to view the self, I think that the point of view in observer memories is not like this; the point of view, I’ll suggest, does not belong to anyone. As I say, I’ll talk a bit more about this in later posts. Thanks again for your really interesting comments!

  2. Glenn Carruthers

    Hi Chris
    thanks for this and congrats on the book. I’m just wondering about how perspective is defined here, is it always with regard to visual perspective? Whilst I can imagine an obsever point of view wrt visual perspective (I don’t think I have observer memories), I’m not sure what it would mean to be an observer wrt to the audiotry point of view (for example). So if I were to have, say, an observer memory of a conversation with someone, is it that I remember it from a 3PP wrt to vision, but a 1PP wrt to audition? Or is it instead that I have only semantic memory of what was said, and no episodic memory of it at all?

    I’m also wondering about the data used — and you may well be getting to this. Given the interest in the experience of remembering, here, I’m wondering if you have any way of dealing with the potential problem that people may not be very good at talking about their experiences of remembering. Is it possible, or meaningful, to distinguish the veridical aspects of reports from what subjects add to their reports to make sense of their memories, or even just to make the memory into a narrative to make it easier to communicate?

    thanks lad
    Glenn

    • Christopher McCarroll

      Hi Glenn,

      Thanks so much for warm wishes, and for your interesting questions.

      When I discuss observer perspectives, and in general in the literature on them, the perspective is usually taken to mean a visual perspective. I don’t talk about it in this series of posts but in the book I discuss how an external visual perspective can still maintain other internal perspectives (e.g., kinaesthesia). The case of audition is interesting. It’s not one that I have thought about in much detail, but I think that perhaps you could have an observer perspective with auditory imagery, as if hearing yourself from-the-outside. I explore the links between allocentric representation and (visual) observer perspectives in my next post, but audition can also involve allocentric representations.

      Also, in my last post I’ll discuss Zeno Vendler’s notion of ‘objective’ imagery (from-the-outside). According to Vendler vision and audition are ‘objective’ in the sense that they put the perceiver in a spatial relation with an object. He thinks that we can have visual and auditory imagery from-the-outside at least in the case of sensory imagination. As an example of the latter he suggests that you can ‘imagine yourself whistling in the dark (distance uncertain, but coming closer)’. So I guess that this would count as an observer perspective auditory image.

      So, in answer to your question, I think an observer memory of a past conversation could involve an external visual perspective with an external auditory perspective/or an internal auditory perspective. Perspectives can come apart or align in interesting ways.

      Regarding the data. Of course, every experiment is different and I don’t do empirical studies, but from my knowledge of the literature most of the data is behavioural (subjective ratings and narratives). In most experiments subjects rate their imagery as field/observer (sometimes with a measure for ‘neither’ or ‘both’), and they do so after hearing a short explanation of the different perspectives. They also usually rate their memories in terms of vividness, emotion, autonoetic consciousness etc. Of course like all self-reports this may not be completely perfect, especially given that the perspectival aspect of mental imagery is a subtle element of our psychology. Some experiments (e.g., McIsaac & Eich 2002) will also have subjects describe their memories and generate narratives, and these narratives are actually a pretty reliable indicator of what’s going on when the subjects are remembering, or at least the narratives and subjective reports align. For example, field perspectives tend to generate more emotional or affective detail, whereas observer perspectives tend to involve more contextual information (how one looked, where objects were), and these differences are also apparent to independent coders (blind to the experimental set-up and hypotheses) who listen to the narrative reports of the memories. And some studies (e.g., St Jacques, Szpunar, & Schacter 2017) are also exploring differences in the brain mechanisms that are involved when remembering from the distinct perspectives.

      I hope this goes some way to answering your questions. Thanks so much again Glenn.

      • Glenn Carruthers

        Thanks, Chris that’s really cool stuff.

        That there are other differences (aside from perspective) between observer and field memories does suggest they’re constituted by different representations. I’m still a bit worried by the idea of experimenters explaining the difference between field and observer memories prior to collecting reports — it would be ok if this just gives subjects a vocabulary for describing their memories, but it’d be a bit of a worry if subjects changed their memories to fit the new vocabulary. Then again, maybe the other differences you point to are sufficient to overcome this worry. Hmmm…. I’ll have to think about it some more

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