, Volume 194, Issue 8, pp 3135–3151 | Cite as

Distributed selves: personal identity and extended memory systems

  • Richard HeersminkEmail author


This paper explores the implications of extended and distributed cognition theory for our notions of personal identity. On an extended and distributed approach to cognition, external information is under certain conditions constitutive of memory. On a narrative approach to personal identity, autobiographical memory is constitutive of our diachronic self. In this paper, I bring these two approaches together and argue that external information can be constitutive of one’s autobiographical memory and thus also of one’s diachronic self. To develop this claim, I draw on recent empirical work in human-computer interaction, looking at lifelogging technologies in both healthcare and everyday contexts. I argue that personal identity can neither be reduced to psychological structures instantiated by the brain nor by biological structures instantiated by the organism, but should be seen as an environmentally-distributed and relational construct. In other words, the complex web of cognitive relations we develop and maintain with other people and technological artifacts partly determines our self. This view has conceptual, methodological, and normative implications: we should broaden our concepts of the self as to include social and artifactual structures, focus on external memory systems in the (empirical) study of personal identity, and not interfere with people’s distributed minds and selves.


Personal identity Narrative self Extended mind  Distributed cognition Transactive memory Lifelogging 



I would like to thank Neil Levy for helpful advice, Paul Smart and Robert Clowes for discussion on embodiment and the self, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions.


  1. Addis, D. R., & Tippett, L. J. (2004). Memory of myself: Autobiographical memory and identity in Alzheimer’s disease. Memory, 12(1), 56–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson, J. (2008). Neuro-prosthetics, the extended mind, and respect for persons with disability. In M. Düwell, C. Rehmann-Sutter, & D. Mieth (Eds.), The contingent nature of life: Bioethics and limits of human existence (pp. 259–274). Heidelberg: Springer.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baker, L. R. (2009). Persons and the extended mind thesis. Zygon, 44(3), 642–658.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Beach, K. (1988). The role of external mnemonic symbols in acquiring an occupation. In M. M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Practical aspects of memory (pp. 342–346). Chichester: Wiley.Google Scholar
  5. Bell, G. M., & Gemmell, J. (2009). Total recall: How the e-memory revolution will change everything. New York: Dutton.Google Scholar
  6. Berry, E., et al. (2007). he use of a wearable camera, SenseCam, as a pictorial diary to improve autobiographical memory in a patient with limbic encephalitis: A preliminary report. Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, 17(4—-5), 582–601.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Buller, T. (2013). Neurotechnology, invasiveness and the extended mind. Neuroethics, 6(3), 593–605.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bush, V. (1945). As we may think. The Atlantic, 176(1), 101–108.Google Scholar
  9. Clark, A. (1997). Being there: Putting brain, body, and world together again. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  10. Clark, A. (2005). Intrinsic content, active memory and the extended mind. Analysis, 65(285), 1–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Clark, A. (2007). Re-inventing ourselves: The plasticity of embodiment, sensing, and mind. Journal of Philosophy and Medicine, 32(3), 263–282.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Clark, A., & Chalmers, D. (1998). The extended mind. Analysis, 58(1), 7–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Clowes, R. W. (2012). Hybrid memory, cognitive technology and self. In Y.J. Erden & J.M. Bishop (Eds.),Proceedings of AISB/IACAP world Congress (pp. 4–13).Google Scholar
  14. Crete-Nishihata, M., et al. (2012). Reconstructing the past: Personal memory technologies are not just personal and not just for memory. Human-Computer Interaction, 27(1–2), 92–123.Google Scholar
  15. Dennett, D. (1996). Kinds of minds: Towards an understanding of consciousness. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  16. Doherty, A. R., et al. (2012). Experiences of aiding autobiographical memory using the SenseCam. Human-Computer Interaction, 27(1–2), 151–174.Google Scholar
  17. Donald, M. (1991). Origins of the modern mind: Three stages in the evolution of our cognitive system. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  18. Floridi, L. (2011). The informational nature of personal identity. Minds and Machines, 21, 549–566.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Harris, C. .B, Keil, P. G., Sutton, J. & Barnier, A. J. (2010). Collaborative remembering: When can remembering with others be beneficial? In W. Christensen, E. Schier & J. Sutton (Eds.), Proceedings of the 9th conference of the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science (pp. 131–134).Google Scholar
  20. Henkel, L. A. (2014). Point-and-shoot memories: The influence of taking photos on memory for a museum tour. Psychological Science, 25(2), 396–402.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Heersmink, R. (2015). Extended mind and cognitive enhancement: Moral aspects of cognitive artifacts. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences. doi: 10.1007/s11097-015-9448-5.
  22. Hodges, S., Berry, E., & Wood, K. (2011). SenseCam: A wearable camera that stimulates and rehabilitates autobiographical memory. Memory, 19(7), 685–696.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hollan, J., Hutchins, E., & Kirsh, D. (2000). Distributed cognition: Toward a new foundation for human-computer interaction research. Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 7(2), 174–196.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  25. Hutchins, E. (2014). The cultural ecosystem of human cognition. Philosophical Psychology, 27(1), 34–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Jacquemard, T., Novitzky, P., O’Brolchain, F., Smeaton, A. F., & Gordijn, B. (2014). Challenges and opportunities of lifelog technologies: A literature review and critical analysis. Science and Engineering Ethics, 20(2), 379–409.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kirsh, D. (1995). The intelligent use of space. Artificial Intelligence, 73(1–2), 1–52.Google Scholar
  28. Levy, N. (2007a). Rethinking neuroethics in the light of the extended mind thesis. American Journal of Bioethics, 7(9), 3–11.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Levy, N. (2007b). Neuroethics: Challenges for the \(21{st}\) century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Loveday, C., & Conway, M. (2011). Using SenseCam with an amnesic patient: Accessing inaccessible everyday memories. Memory, 19(7), 697–704.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Mackenzie, C. (2008). Introduction: Practical identity and narrative agency. In C. Mackenzie & K. Atkins (Eds.), Practical identity and narrative agency (pp. 1–28). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  32. Mackenzie, C., & Walker, M. (2015). Neurotechnologies, personal identity, and the ethics of authenticity. In J. Clausen & N. Levy (Eds.), Handbook of neuroethics (pp. 373–392). Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  33. Mayer-Schonberger, V. (2011). Delete: The virtue of forgetting in the digital age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Menary, R. (2007). Cognitive integration: Mind and cognition unbound. London: Palgrave McMillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Michaelian, K. (2014). JFGI: From distributed cognition to distributed reliabilism. Philosophical Issues, 24(1), 314–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Michaelian, K., & Sutton, J. (2013). Distributed cognition and memory research: History and current directions. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 4(1), 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Norman, D. (1993). Things that make us smart: Defending human attributes in the age of the machine. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  38. O’Hara, K., Tufflied, M. M., & Shadbolt, N. (2008). Lifelogging: Privacy and empowerment with memories for life. Identity in the Information Society, 1(1), 155–172.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Olsen, E. T. (2011). The extended self. Minds and Machines, 21(4), 481–495.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Parfit, D. (1984). Reasons and persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  41. Rowlands, M. (1999). The body in mind: Understanding cognitive processes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Schechtman, M. (1994). The truth about memory. Philosophical Psychology, 7(1), 3–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Schechtman, M. (1996). The constitution of selves. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Schechtman, M. (2008). Diversity in unity: Practical unity and personal boundaries. Synthese, 162(3), 405–423.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Schechtman, M. (2012). The story of my (second) life: Virtual worlds and narrative identity. Philosophy and Technology, 25(3), 329–343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Smart, P., Heersmink, R., & Clowes, R. (2016). The cognitive ecology of the internet. In S. Cowley & F. Vallée-Tourangeau (Eds.), Cognition beyond the brain: Computation, interactivity and human artifice (2nd ed.). Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  47. Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 776–778.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Sutton, J. (2009). The feel of the world: Exograms, habits, and the confusion of types of memory. In A. Kania (Ed.), Philosophers on Memento (pp. 65–86). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  49. Sutton, J. (2010). Exograms and interdisciplinarity: History, the extended mind, and the civilizing process. In R. Menary (Ed.), The extended mind (pp. 189–225). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Sutton, J., Harris, C. B., Keil, P., & Barnier, A. J. (2010). The psychology of memory, extended cognition, and socially distributed remembering. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 9(4), 521–560.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Theiner, G. (2013). Transactive memory systems: A mechanistic analysis of emergent group memory. Review of Philosophy and Psychology, 4(1), 65–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  53. van den Hoven, E. (2014). A future-proof past: Designing for remembering experiences. Memory Studies, 7(3), 373–387.Google Scholar
  54. van den Hoven, E., Cas, C., & Whittaker, S. (2012). Introduction to this special issue on designing for personal memories: Past, present, and future. Human-Computer Interaction, 27(1–2), 1–12.Google Scholar
  55. Wegner, D. M. (1995). A computer network model of human transactive memory. Social Cognition, 13(3), 319–339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Wegner, D. M., Giuliano, T., & Hertel, P. T. (1985). Cognitive interdependence in close relationships. In W. J. Ickes (Ed.), Compatible and incompatible relationships (pp. 253–276). New York: Springer-Verlag.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Wilson, R., & Lenart, B. (2014). Extended mind and identity. In J. Clausen & N. Levy (Eds.), Handbook of neuroethics (pp. 423–439). Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Macquarie UniversitySydneyAustralia

Personalised recommendations