The narrative self, distributed memory, and evocative objects

Abstract

In this article, I outline various ways in which artifacts are interwoven with autobiographical memory systems and conceptualize what this implies for the self. I first sketch the narrative approach to the self, arguing that who we are as persons is essentially our (unfolding) life story, which, in turn, determines our present beliefs and desires, but also directs our future goals and actions. I then argue that our autobiographical memory is partly anchored in our embodied interactions with an ecology of artifacts in our environment. Lifelogs, photos, videos, journals, diaries, souvenirs, jewelry, books, works of art, and many other meaningful objects trigger and sometimes constitute emotionally laden autobiographical memories. Autobiographical memory is thus distributed across embodied agents and various environmental structures. To defend this claim, I draw on and integrate distributed cognition theory and empirical research in human-technology interaction. Based on this, I conclude that the self is neither defined by psychological states realized by the brain nor by biological states realized by the organism, but should be seen as a distributed and relational construct.

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Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Elise van den Hoven for the invitation to give a talk about the narrative self and technology at the University of Technology in Sydney. Thanks also to Wendy Carlton for giving very helpful feedback on an earlier version of this paper, John Sutton for giving useful suggestions for literature on autobiographical memory, and to Celia Harris for drawing my attention to the House of Memories initiative in Denmark. Some of the ideas in this paper were presented at Minds, Selves and 21 st Century Technology held at the New University of Lisbon and at the Cognitive Humanities workshop held at Macquarie University (both in 2016). I like to thank the organizers and the audiences for helpful feedback and suggestions.

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Heersmink, R. The narrative self, distributed memory, and evocative objects. Philos Stud 175, 1829–1849 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-017-0935-0

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Keywords

  • Autobiographical memory
  • Self
  • Narrative
  • Extended mind
  • Distributed cognition
  • Evocative objects
  • Transactive memory
  • Extended emotion