Misremembering is a systematic and ordinary occurrence in our daily lives. Since it is commonly assumed that the function of memory is to remember the past, misremembering is typically thought to happen because our memory system malfunctions. In this paper I argue that not all cases of misremembering are due to failures in our memory system. In particular, I argue that many ordinary cases of misremembering should not be seen as instances of memory’s malfunction, but rather as the normal result of a larger cognitive system that performs a different function, and for which remembering is just one operation. Building upon extant psychological and neuroscientific evidence, I offer a picture of memory as an integral part of a larger system that supports not only thinking of what was the case and what potentially could be the case, but also what could have been the case. More precisely, I claim that remembering is a particular operation of a cognitive system that permits the flexible recombination of different components of encoded traces into representations of possible past events that might or might not have occurred, in the service of constructing mental simulations of possible future events.
So that imagination and memory are but one thing, which for diverse considerations hath diverse names.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan 1.2.
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It is an curious linguistic fact of the English language that the word ‘memory’ is so polysemous. Consider the sentence “She has an extraordinary memory”. It could mean that she has a good memory-qua-cognitive-system—she may be able to store a lot of information, for instance—or it could mean that she has a memory-qua-mental-state whose content happens to be out of the ordinary. As much as possible I will try to disambiguate these senses, but for the most part, when I talk about memory, I refer to the cognitive system.
Philosophers and psychologists recognize several kinds of memory. What psychologists call ‘procedural’ or ‘non-declarative memory’, for instance, roughly corresponds to what Bergson (1908) and Russell (1921) called ‘habit memory’, and James (1890) called ‘secondary memory’. ‘Declarative’ or ‘non-procedural memory’, which psychologists operationalize as the kind of memory whose contents can be consciously declared, more or less corresponds to James’ notion of ‘primary memory’. Declarative memory, in turn, is usually divided into ‘semantic’ and ‘episodic memory’ (Tulving 1983, 1972). Semantic memory refers to knowledge of facts and situations about the world that we need not have witnessed; when we recall semantic memories there is no need for mental imagery associated to the place and/or time in which the remembered event occurred. Finally, episodic memory refers to memory of experienced events. It roughly corresponds to what some philosophers have called ‘recollective memory’, ‘personal memory’, ‘experiential memory’, or ‘direct memory’ (Furlong 1948; Locke 1971; Malcolm 1963; Martin and Deutscher 1966). There is some disagreement as to whether or not these terms define perfectly equivalent categories, or even if they name psychological kinds at all (Michaelian 2011b). As it will become clear, the view I am advancing here is sympathetic to the claim that some forms of memory may not constitute psychological/natural kinds. Right now, however, I will be sidestepping this issue; I will get back to it briefly in Sect. 4. For the time being, what matters is that the sort of memory experience I will be discussing falls within the psychologist’s definition of specific episodic autobiographical memory. Examples include memories about particular—as opposed to general (Conway and Pleydell-Pearce 2000)—events of one’s childhood, this or that party I went to in college, the moment in which I received my bachelors degree, or the exact instant in which my wife said ‘I do’ at our wedding.
Kurtzman (1983), for instance, claims that such is the classic view of memory, so that “any distortion of memory can be attributed to an abnormality in functioning” (p. 3). In a similar vein, Michaelian (2011c) suggests that this “intuitively plausible characterization of memory’s function”, according to which memory’s function “is to preserve information acquired in the past, making it available for future use” (p. 400), has been tacitly assumed by many philosophers and epistemologists. It is worth noting that Michaelian thinks that this characterization is, “at best, a crude oversimplification”, and he distances himself from endorsing the claim that misremembering is always memory’s failure (Michaelian, in press).
Arguably, the content-based approach can be traced back to Aristotle. In De Memoria et Reminiscentia, for instance, Aristotle explicitly endorses the content-based approach to distinguish the role of memory—the “organ of the soul by which animals remember” (DM 553b5-10; Sorabji 2006)—from that of perception and expectation. According to Aristotle, what memory does is different from perception and expectation, for memory’s content is the past, whereas the content of perception is the present and the content of expectation is the future (DM 449b25; Sorabji 2006).
It is worth mentioning that most philosophers of memory endorse some version of representationalism, according to which, when we remember, we entertain a mental representation depicting an event we experienced in the past. Since memory representationalists are also usually representationalists about perception, remembering is typically understood as either the reproduction or the reconstruction of previous perceptual representations. However, although representationalism is the predominant view in philosophy of memory, it is not the only one. Its most prominent contender is direct realism. According to its most general interpretation, direct realism says that when we remember we don’t deploy a mental representation of the experienced event; rather we become directly aware of the event itself. Direct realism is usually associated with Thomas Reid, but it has had some partisans since. However, as it has been pointed out, strong versions of direct realism face difficult metaphysical obstacles, while some of its weaker forms collapse with representationalism (see Locke 1971; Warnock 1987). As a result, for the purposes of this paper, I take memory representationalism as the default philosophical view.
In the psychological literature, the terms “false” and “distorted memories” are often conflated. However, as pointed out by one reviewer, there is an important difference between false and distorted memories. Unless one accepts the strict view that true (or genuine) memories are only those in which the remembered content needs to be identical to the content originally experienced, not all distorted memories would count as false memories. Surely, any version of recollection that acknowledges its reconstructive nature must admit certain degree of distortion during the retrieval of veridical memories. To what extent are distorted memories veridical is an important and difficult question, about which philosophers of mind and epistemologists are currently writing (e.g., Campbell 2006; Michaelian 2011a; Michaelian 2011c; Sutton 2009; Sutton 2010). However, the current paper does not directly speak to such question, as it does not deal primarily with the difference between distorted memories that can and cannot be considered true, but rather with the difference between distorted memories that can and cannot be considered the product of a malfunctioning memory system. As a result, unless otherwise indicated, my use of ‘false/distorted memory’ is to be understood in opposition to ‘true/genuine memory’, in the sense of being the product of a functioning system, rather than ‘true/veridical memory’, in the sense of holding the appropriate truth-relation with the world. In fact, as I just mentioned—and as I will try to make clear in Sect. 4—one of the main purposes of this paper is to argue that false memories, in the epistemic sense, are not the same as memories that are produced by a malfunctioning memory system, as it is often assumed in the philosophical literature.
Psychologists call this feature schema-consistency, meaning that false memories are consistent with schematic forms of the events they falsely portray. I will discuss this issue further in Sect. 3.
The relationship between false alarms and predator population needn’t be linear. It may be possible that false alarms also increase when there is an excessive number of predators. Still, the point I am about to make holds even in this hypothetical situation.
A reviewer suggested that it may be worth mentioning, as a third kind of case, Millikan’s example against statistical accounts of normal functions: sperm. According to Millikan, “the function of a sperm’s tail is to propel it to an ovum, but very few sperm find themselves under normal conditions for proper performance of the tail” (Millikan 1993, pp. 161). Likewise—said the reviewer—one could see each individual memory as normally false or distorted, but perfectly accurate only under very specific ideal circumstances. This is an interesting suggestion, but two considerations dissuaded me from including it in the main text. First, the analogy I am pursuing here is between biological and cognitive systems. Comparing individual memories to individual sperm does not quite capture the kind of malfunction I am going after. Second, as (Boorse 2002, pp. 92–93) pointed out, there is an important sense in which statistical regularities can account for specific circumstances. Millikan’s example shows that, on average, most sperm do not perform their function because the conditions aren’t such that they can successfully do it. However, if circumstances were such that every sperm could perform its function, then sperm’s Normal function would presumably coincide with its normal, regular function. This shift in circumstances is also clear in some instances involving biological systems, as it is the case with the first example I mention in the main text.
A neat piece of evidence in support of the claim that distorted rather than faithful memory representations are more advantageous, would be to find out whether people who experience no memory distortion exhibit behaviors that are clearly less advantageous than those exhibited by people who normally experience memory distortions. There are several reasons why this piece of evidence is hard to gather in practice. For one, as I mentioned, false and distorted memories are prevalent and pervasive, to the extent that everybody seems susceptible to experience them. A longitudinal study comparing two groups in these two conditions would probably be impossible. An attractive alternative would be looking at specific populations. There are at least two possible populations from where to draw samples for a longitudinal study testing this hypothesis: patients with retrograde amnesia and individuals with hyperthymestic syndrome, a condition in which individuals appear unable to forget episodic details of their day-to-day lives (Parker et al. 2006). Multiple studies have been conducted with amnestic patients which, unsurprisingly, have a hard time getting around in the world. Some of these results will be covered shortly. But the second population remains understudied—partly because hyperthymestic syndrome is not only recent but also controversial. This, I believe, is a fecund line for future research.
Contrast this interpretation with the case of the meerkat’s alarm system. In the case of the meerkats, it looks as though the cost of a false alarm is significantly lower than the cost of missing a predator. Similarly, under this interpretation, the cost of producing distortions is significantly lower that the cost of encoding experiences with high fidelity.
It is worth noting that, in their paper on the adaptive role of memory distortions, Schacter, Guerin and St. Jacques also distance themselves from the trade-off interpretation I just argued against, and suggest instead that memory distortions may reflect essential adaptive processes such as simulating possible future events, creativity and memory updating. As it will become evident, the proposal I offer in this paper is entirely consistent with their view. In fact, it can easily be seen as suggesting that another one of those adaptive processes leading to occasional false memories is counterfactual thinking. Moreover, Schacter and collaborators suggest that it is a mistake to think of all cases of false memory as cases of memory malfunction, as many kinds of memory distortions “reflect the operation of a normal memory system” (Schacter et al. 2011, p. 472). However, they remain mute as to what the function of such a memory system may be if false memories aren’t the result of memory’s malfunction. I think of the present paper as speaking directly to that issue.
“Storing” is a rather misleading term. What seems to occur when we encode information is the strengthening of neural connections due to the co-activation of different regions of the brain, particularly in the sensory cortices, the medial temporal lobe, the superior parietal cortex, and the lateral prefrontal cortex. During encoding, each of these regions performs a different function depending on the moment in which the information gets processed. A memory trace is the dispositional property these regions have to re-activate, when triggered by the right cue, in roughly the same pattern of activation they underwent during encoding. (See De Brigard 2010 ).
As pointed out by a reviewer, the analogy with the dinosaur’s fossils isn’t entirely accurate, as fragments of memory traces do not remain unchanged through time as the fossilized remains of dinosaurs do (see footnote 13). I agree. The point, however, is that not all the fragments need to be there beforehand for the reconstructing to take place.
A reviewer found this claim suggestive, and advised me to relate this line of argument to recent Bayesian models in computational neuroscience, such as Friston (2010) and Clark’s (in press), in which my ‘optimal reconstruction’ could be tantamount to their notion of ‘optimization’, which is essentially understood as the reduction of surprise or prediction error. Although I am entirely sympathetic to this project, I think that extant evidence of its application to episodic memory is practically non-existent, as most of the models produced within this ‘predictive coding’ framework pertain to perception and motor tasks. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if the data on the Bayesian models just discussed and the possible results coming from applying the predictive coding framework to episodic memory were entirely consistent. However, wedding the two approaches may bring other complications too, as I discuss in De Brigard (2012).
This assertion is contentious but important. Memory traces or “engrams” do not have the ontological status of objects or events. They are dispositional properties of neural networks to elicit certain responses (see footnote 8). A similar idea can be found in the works of Semon (1909), Martin and Deutscher (1966), and more recently Tulving (2002).
The modal operator here is to be interpreted epistemically. Our memory system must be sensitive to alternative ways in which we think our past could have been, regardless of whether or not such counterfactual metaphysically obtains. Needless to say, I have in mind a naturalized version of this epistemological interpretation: what we think could have happened in the past is constrained by the psychological mechanisms by means of which we think counterfactually (cfr. Williamson 2010). This point will be clarified soon.
Interestingly, one of Hassabis et al. (2007) patients (P01) performed on par with controls, suggesting that not all individuals with amnesia show a concomitant compromise in episodic hypothetical thinking. However, upon closer scrutiny, it was shown that P01 had some remnant anterior hippocampal tissue, apparently comprising part of CA3 and the dentate gyrus, the engagement of which—the authors presumed—may have been sufficient to allow P01 to entertain episodic hypothetical thoughts. Mullally et al. (2012) recently confirmed this suspicion by examining P01’s brain activity during the construction of episodic hypothetical thoughts. Strikingly, the remnant hippocampal tissue showed strong activations during successful trials in which episodic hypothetical thoughts were generated. This observation further strengthens the hypothesis that anterior regions of the hippocampus, more so than posterior regions, may be critically involved in the binding of episodic memory fragments (Addis and Schacter 2012). This observation is consistent with recent views in neurobiology suggesting that the capacity to form associations between episodic fragments depend upon the continuous production of new-born granule cells in the dentate gyrus (Deng et al. 2010). Moreover, it is also consistent with recent neurodevelopmental evidence showing that although posterior regions of the hippocampus (i.e., subiculum and CA1) tend to develop relatively early in life, anterior regions (i.e., CA 3 and dentate gyrus) tend to develop at around the time in which episodic autobiographical memory begins to settle (Saitoh et al. 2001).
A related difficulty is whether or not ‘memory’ is the most appropriate term to refer to the reconstructive mechanisms employed during episodic hypothetical thinking. Further research in the philosophy and the cognitive neuroscience of memory may show that a change in nomenclature could be desirable. I am indebted to a reviewer for raising these two issues.
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Many thanks to the audiences at the Society for Philosophy and Psychology at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, the Metro Experimental Research Group at NYU, the audiences at the departments of Philosophy and Psychology at the UNC, Chapel Hill, and at the department of Psychology at Harvard. I am also grateful to Donna Rose Addis, Dorit Bar-On, Carl Craver, Daniel Dennett, Shamindra Fernando, Jaclyn Ford, Kelly Giovanello, Adrianne Harris, Bryce Huebner, Justin Junge, William Lycan, Ram Neta, Jesse Prinz, Karl Szpunar, Daniel Schacter, Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, and two reviewers for their valuable comments.
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De Brigard, F. Is memory for remembering? Recollection as a form of episodic hypothetical thinking. Synthese 191, 155–185 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-013-0247-7
- Cognitive function
- Hypothetical thinking
- Core brain network
- Episodic future thinking
- Episodic counterfactual thinking