The Experience of Being Oneself in Memory: Exploring Sense of Identity via Observer Memory


Every episodic memory entails a sense of identity, which allows us to mentally travel through time. There is a special way by which the subject who is remembering comes into contact with the self that is embedded in the episodic simulation of memory: we can directly and robustly experience the protagonist in memory as ourselves. This paper explores what constitutes such experience in memory. On the face of it, the issue may seem trivial: of course, we are able to entertain a sense of identity—the experience of our recollection structurally resembles our perception of the original event. However, given the phenomenon of observer memory, in which our visual perspective is decoupled from our embodied dimension, it is unclear whether it is the observing or the embodied one that is identified. This phenomenon is important not only in illustrating the complexity of identification but also in assessing how best to address it. In this paper, the issue is analyzed through concepts introduced from the literature on bodily self-consciousness. The potential approaches to addressing the issue of identification are examined, including the inheritance view, according to which the identification relies on the inheritance of mnemonic content from the original experience. I propose and argue for the self-simulation view, which suggests that what results in the experience of “I am this” in memory is the observing and the embodied dimensions as well as the relation between them, which enable different ways of projecting oneself into an episodic simulation.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Another core element is the temporal dimension.

  2. 2.

    The absence of recognizable features may be due to decreased vividness or accuracy of memory retrieval (Marcotti and St. Jacques 2018) or the vantage point adopted, which prevents some or any external properties represented in the visual scene.

  3. 3.

    In this paper, it is assumed that the experiences of identification in field memory, observer memory, and other forms of distorted memory have the same basis or constituents. While this assumption can be explored in detail, here it is accepted because these forms of memories are likely to be associated with the same underlying mechanism, and thus it is likely that the experiences of identification in these cases have the same basis. Second, the sense of identity manifests similarly in these cases. Consider the core characteristics of the experience of identification in observer memory, they are also shared by the sense of identity in field memory.

  4. 4.

    In a standard situation, SI is localized within one’s represented body.

  5. 5.

    Blanke and Metzinger (2009) made the distinction between strong and weak 1PP. 1PP in this paper only refers to weak 1PP.

  6. 6.

    To address the worry that appealing to self-identification in UI is circular: self-identification does not presuppose the current subject’s ownership of the simulated body. That is, it is conceptually possible that one can create an episodic simulation within which a simulated character is embodied and has a sense of ownership of the simulated body, while one does not experience that simulated character as the same person.

  7. 7.

    See also Callow and Hardy (2004) for the examination of the strength of the relationship between visual perspectives and kinesthetic imagery.

  8. 8.

    To be more precise, these properties are simulated (Metzinger 2004).

  9. 9.

    For example, it includes how things far away are presented as smaller than things that are closer to oneself.

  10. 10.

    In his book, McCarroll (2018) argues that the observing perspective is unoccupied and there is only a two-term relation in observer memory. I will address this issue later in this section.

  11. 11.

    McCarroll (2018) raised this issue in the context of replying to Vendler’s argument against the possibility of observer memory due to the problem of authenticity.

  12. 12.

    The nature and constitution of 1PP, SI, and SL have been studied (e.g., Bertossa et al. 2008; de Vignemont 2018; Limanowski and Hecht 2011), and it is unclear whether these phenomenal properties emerge in the same way in episodic simulation. However, this topic is beyond the scope of the current paper.

  13. 13.

    If the issue of identification is conceived in a way that requires a process of an unidentified target to be identified with, to frame the issue in question as how one identifies with oneself can be misleading, since according to the self-simulation view, there is no unidentified protagonist prior to the identification being established (as in the scenario of recognizing oneself in a photo). However, such requirement does not seem necessary. The issue merely concerns how the identification between the rememberer and the remembered is established.

  14. 14.

    Such flexibility also exists in future-thinking and mind-wandering. A cross-cultural study of the prevalence of the two visual vantage points in imaginary events during mind-wandering shows that almost half (46%) of participants reported most commonly adopting an observer perspective (Christian et al. 2013). Additionally, McDermott et al. (2016) revealed that future events are more likely to be imagined from an observer perspective.

  15. 15.

    A larger idea behind the self-simulation view for the identification in episodic memory is how one’s phenomenal self can manifest in many different ways. Out-of-body experiences (Blanke and Metzinger 2009), bodiless dreams (Windt 2010), and ego dissolutions in psychedelic experiences (Letheby and Gerrans 2017) are among typical cases for research on this topic. However, cases can also be found in ordinary experiences. Observer memory is one of them, and there are more to be explored. Besides, if one can accept that there are numerous forms of the (altered) phenomenal self, then one need not worry about the dualism that troubles McCarroll (2018).

  16. 16.

    Whether memory can be regarded as a mental action is a matter of debate which is beyond the scope of this paper. Here, I agree with Arango-Muñoz and Bermúdez (2018) that some mental processes of memory can be seen as mental action. That is, there is an active component in memory, even though it can be absent.


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I am grateful to the reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this paper. This research was supported by a grant from the Taiwan Ministry of Science and Technology.

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Lin, YT. The Experience of Being Oneself in Memory: Exploring Sense of Identity via Observer Memory. Rev.Phil.Psych. 11, 405–422 (2020).

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