Memory & Consciousness

Does memory allow us to think about consciousness is new ways?


We teamed up with the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at our recent event on Emotion, Memory & the Mind. Anil Seth, Co-Director of the Centre and a neuroscientist interested in consciousness, opened the workshop.

In the laboratory environment, the question of consciousness is reduced to one about how we become aware of things in the external world. Memory and emotions appear to be key elements of a different sense of consciousness, by deeply shaping our experience of being a self. Within this realm, the contribution offered by the humanities to our comprehension of what is like to be oneself is fundamental.

How do we remember and what is the role played by emotion in shaping our identity?

Source: Emotion, Memory & the Mind Event report.

Anil Seth

If we’re trying to understand the human mind and the experience of being a self, emotion and memory are really at the centre of that. And of course emotion and memory provide a very rich link to the humanities… The creative humanities are in part based on developing an understanding of self through emotion and memory.

– Anil Seth, opening remarks, 4:10

What is Real? Perception and Remembering

Memories deeply shape our sense of who we are. Memories are the door to identity, the bedrock upon which we build our ‘selves’. However, memories are not perfect facsimiles of events in the world. Indeed, the act of remembering is an active process of reconstruction. How do memories construct our narrative self? What is the relationship between memories and ‘reality’?


The Creative Navigator’s Compass: Memory and Perception – and how we know where we are

clayton01Nicola Clayton and Clive Wilkins joined The Human Mind Project to discuss their collaborative work on memory and perception at Cambridge.

Nicola Clayton and Clive Wilkins emphasised the way in which memories shape our own sense of personal narrative self, and our idea of what is – or was – real.  Memories are the door to identity, the bedrock upon which our selves are built. However, it would be mistaken to assume that they are perfect facsimiles of events in the world. Indeed, the act of remembering is not simply a passive evocation of a past event but an active process of reconstruction, often influenced by the self.  A paradigmatic example comes from a classic work by Frederic Bartlett[1], in which participants were asked to read and later clivewilkinsremember a Native American folk tale “The War of the Ghosts”.  Surprisingly, in the act of remembering, individuals’ memories of the details of the tale were distorted, and some aspects were omitted or emphasised in order to fit cultural expectations.

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How does our subjective ‘self’ affect our memories, and how does our sense of self rely on our memories?

As Clayton and Wilkins argue, we all have the subjective experience of our self as rooted in personal life-experiences, which for us are now memories. In turn, the self – our personalities, subjective perspectives, and transient emotional states – might be responsible for the distortions and filters that we apply to memories. Such a process is likely to be a sort of feedback loop: experiences generate memories, which mould the self.  Further, as shown by the subjective distortion of memories, the self can go on to mould the memories we retain.  As a result, the self not only reconstructs or filters existing memories, but also acts on the formation of future memories.

How to capture the complex relationship between memory, identity and time?

Clayton and Wilkins argue that, similarly to perception, memories are not mirror images of reality. Like perception, memory is deeply illusory and constantly shifting (see Wilkins’s novel in four parts, The Moustachio Quartet[2]). Think about the visual experience of seeing two individuals dancing the tango. A minute later, we do not remember what happened in reality: what we remember becomes what happened. In this way, memory shapes what we are. In turn, everyone’s memories are filtered through one’s personal, unique perspective, and shaped by one’s subjectivity, momentary mood, and idiosyncrasy. In the midst of all the shared experiences, we build our personal reality, forged by the reconstructive nature of memory[3]. This calls into question the authenticity of memory, and the very same belief in the existence of an external material world. What is real? What is imagined? How are the thoughts of the past transformed through time? Despite the emphasis on objectivity and accuracy, experiences are ineludibly subjective. People have a propensity for massively missing what is there. As cognitive neuroscience has shown, memory differs from an analytic repository of perceived images. It supports the ability to conjecture and to anticipate alternative scenarios, allows creative thinking and mental time travel, enables individuals to juggle multiple perspectives simultaneously, and is involved in problem solving and creativity.

How might memories and emotions guide future actions – are we trapped in an (eternally) present self?

Memories may not be just a repository of the past, but a platform from which we can project the self into the future, consider counterfactuals and conjecture about future paths.  In this way memories provide the bedrock for our ability to plan and make goals for the future. But there is even more: Clayton and Wilkins argue that, as humans, we are sometimes adversely affected by our subjective existence in the present; we might make mistaken plans for the future based on our present motivational state. Indeed, psychology and neuroscience have shown that current desires not only influence our present choices, but also our decisions for the future, by determining what we think we will want or strive for.

Clayton provided evidence that some non-human animals are less prone to mistakes of this sort. Although they are able to remember and make plans, they use a different system for evaluating the future, taking their present self out of the equation. Western Scrub-Jays, for example, appear capable of planning for the future independently of current motivational states[4].

Optical illusions and false memories

An interesting aspect of optical illusions is that they force the brain to believe that a certain perceptual phenomenon might be wrong. By playing with what we see and what we know (consider the Stroop effect), optical illusions lead everyone to commit exactly the same mistakes, pointing to universal, shared features of the human mind. Given their systematicity, such mistakes might cast light on cognitive processes and the limitations of episodic cognition and perception. In daily life, we are biased by what we expect to see, and we remember things falsely. An example is offered by Jimmy G. (“The lost mariner”), one of the patients whose story is portrayed by Oliver Sacks in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat[5]. Stuck in a never-ending past, Jimmy permanently believes he is 19 years old. Sacks reported Jimmy’s grief when he sees himself in the mirror, facing an old body that could not be his own. Differently from amnesiacs, healthy people regularly use imagination to reconstruct things. Their memories are flexible and malleable. For example, when asked to report the correct boundaries of a picture, we are often unable to remember the picture we actually saw. Typically, we tend to think we saw more than what was actually there – a visual illusion known as boundary extension[6].  This constitutes evidence both of the illusory nature of perception and memory, and of their crucial role for imagination and creativity.

[1] Bartlett, F. C. (1920). Some experiments on the reproduction of folk stories’. Folk-Lore, 31, 30-47.

[2] Wilkins, Clive (2014). The Moustachio Quartet Caruso Maelstrom, Wind on the Wire Press.

[3] Bartlett, Frederic C., and Sir Walter Kintsch C. B. E. M. A. F.R.S. (1995) Remembering: A Study in Experimental and Social Psychology. 2 edition. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press

[4] Correia, S. P., Dickinson, A., & Clayton, N. S. (2007). Western scrub-jays anticipate future needs independently of their current motivational state. Curr Biol, 17(10), 856-861. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2007.03.063

[5] Sacks, Oliver (2014) The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: Picador Classic. Pan Macmillan

[6] Intraub, H., Gottesman, C. V., & Bills, A. J. (1998). Effects of perceiving and imagining scenes on memory for pictures. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn, 24(1), 186-201.

Source: Emotion, Memory & the Mind Event report.

Clive Wilkins & Nicola Clayton

The fact that we now know that we are capable of making our memories shimmer and change causes us to frequently question the authenticity of memory. What was real? What was imagined? And what, if anything, will be real tomorrow?

– Clive Wilkins & Nicola Clayton, 15:15

Despite our desire to be objective, to see the world as it really is, in truth, our experiences are subjective. We view and extrapolate the world through an imaginative lens. We build the world in our own form, and in so doing have the propensity to massively miss what is actually there. Why is this? It’s because we use our imagination system for memory, what psychologists term episodic cognition. Its about projecting the self in time, and in doing so of course we don’t only question our memories, but we also question our identity, both individually and collectively. Indeed, it’s been said that our memories are the door to our identities. And of course, by implication it’s also who we are that shapes how we lay down new memories.

– Clive Wilkins & Nicola Clayton, 17:10

Cognitive neuroscientists argue that the primary function of memory is not to serve as a repository for the past but rather to support our ability to conjecture about what the future may hold

– Clive Wilkins & Nicola Clayton, 21:50

One of the constraints of our imagination system of episodic memory is our obsession with the self in the present moment, and it has been described as form of a temporal myopia

– Clive Wilkins & Nicola Clayton, 27:05

arrowsThese illusions are not interesting because they cause everyone to make a mistake, they’re interesting because they cause every one of us to make the same mistake. They reveal universal and significant features of the human mind. We use our imaginations to look in to time, and just as our eyes sometime lead us to see things as they are not, our imaginations sometimes lead us to remember things falsely

– Clive Wilkins & Nicola Clayton, 45:50

Clive Wilkins & Nicola Clayton

It’s very easy for us to make the assumption that what we perceive and how we remember are accurate reflections of reality. Many of our greatest deceptions are borne out of such faulty suppositions

– Clive Wilkins & Nicola Clayton, 9:10

You don’t remember what happened. What you remember becomes what happened.

– Clive Wilkins & Nicola Clayton, 13:05

It is perhaps our ability to see, to remember, to imagine futures and to plan alternative scenarios concerning who we are or might become, that in truth may never have existed except in our imagination, that lies at the heart of our creativity, our problem solving, and our humanity

– Clive Wilkins & Nicola Clayton, 50:45

Memory and the Self

While all forms of memory are central to identity, autobiographical memory is perhaps the most central to how we build and maintain a sense of ourselves and our life narrative. How does autobiographical memory work? And what happens when it is disrupted? Are current approaches across the mind and brain sciences adequate for the task of explaining the complex nature of memory and identity?

Autobiographical Memory and the Self

dr_catherine_lovedayCatherine Loveday works on nature of normal and impaired memory at Westminster University. In additional to her clinical work on cognitive assessment, Catherine’s work explores autobiographical memory.

Catherine Loveday’s talk emphasised the way in which our sense of personal or narrative self is rooted in autobiographical memory, the explicit form of memory describing events in one’s own life-narrative.  Encompassing knowledge about external events and about one’s own subjective experience, autobiographical memory is an essential foundation of the personal self, informing our identity across the lifespan.

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A powerful demonstration of this involves the simple completion of the phrase “I am …”, leading one to define one’s personal roles in life[1]. These roles, such as “father”, “academic”, can clearly be seen as foundational bricks of the narrative self.  If prompted, people evoke rich memories that represent specific experiences of these roles in life – such as the first time one held ones’ child, or a particularly successful event in one’s work life. This demonstrates the degree to which the narrative self is built on strong memories of important life-events.  Indeed, autobiographical memory is a complex phenomenon, consisting both of the sum of episodic details about one’s own experience, and of a general knowledge of oneself, operating as an encompassing framework. Such a tool is essential to human functioning, sense of identity, and personal narrative, enabling people to set interpersonal goals, and to deal with the social world.

Autobiographical memory and storytelling

Autobiographical memories are unequally distributed over the lifespan. Memories contributing to our sense of self and identity tend inevitably to be very defining moments, whose interrelation is meant to provide a coherent narrative. Typically, to give a definition of ourselves, we resort to the first defining memories we may pick (the birth of a child, the first day of work) or to the most powerful ones (“once I played Hamlet, I became an actor”).

A fascinating example of how memories support and define the self can be seen when studying the “lifespan retrieval curve”[2].  This involves studying the autobiographical memories of adults by using, for example, a form of the “I am…” cueing method above. From what ages in one’s life do more or less of one’s autobiographical memories come from? Psychologists are able to investigate the distribution in time of these memories. As one might expect, there is a period of “childhood amnesia” prior to 5 years, and a usual tendency for a recency effect (the number of recent memories we retain is consistently larger than the number of older ones).

Another strong and intriguing phenomenon is the “reminiscence bump”[3] :  there is an increased tendency for people to recall more autobiographical memories from adolescence and early adulthood (approx. 10 – 30 years). A number of theories have been posited to account for this, including an intriguing one that emphasises narrative and self-formation.  It is argued that as adolescence and early adulthood are particularly crucial for certain forms of self formation, memories generated in this time are more fully rehearsed and elaborated. The foundational experiences of these years – in family, friendships, work, romance etc. – are made integral to the personal self through memory. Catherine Loveday discusses the way in which specific cues unveil individual autobiographical memories. Music, for example, has a powerful ability to reawaken past memories.

What happens when autobiographical memories are disrupted?

What would it be like to lose our autobiographical memories? The things that made us the persons we are simply would have gone. But memory loss is such a complex phenomenon that amnesiac patients differ significantly from one another. This is why research about single-case studies remains highly informative. How might disruptions of memory affect not only our past, but also our present and future selves?

Loveday emphasised the role of studying individuals with disruptions of memory, especially in terms of understanding the heterogeneous nature of amnesia and how it can have very different impacts on the self in different patients.  Consider the famous example of Clive Wearing, a renowned musician and musicologist at the BBC who, due to encephalitis, suffered profound retrograde and anterograde amnesia in 1985. Wearing can no longer remember anything prior to his illness, nor form new memories.  This means his ongoing sense of a conscious self is severely disrupted, and he is constantly experiencing “waking up” every 20 seconds.  Nevertheless, Mr Wearing can still play piano and has distinct – and sometimes uncontrollable – emotional responses to his music. His case helps scientists to understand how we might know defining aspects of ourselves, without storing any specific memory of them.

Loveday also described the process of working with Claire C., in collaboration with neuropsychologist Martin Conway and filmmaker Shona Illingworth. An amnesic patient showing little recollective experience, Claire knows who she is, but has lost her ability to recognise herself, suffering also from prosopagnosia. In her account of her work with Claire, Loveday describes Claire’s grainy memories of her past. Whilst she does retain her sense of personal identity, she describes the past as cut-off from her, whereas the future is frightening:  because she lacks memories of the past, there is little for her to use in order for her to project herself into the future. Imagination, mind-wandering and daydreaming are lost to her. Claire also shows a characteristic lack of ownership of her own memories, which appear to be less flexible and malleable than healthy people’s ones. As shown by the examples, memories are not just a window into the past, but can define the present self and our sense of the future.

[1] Rathbone, C. J., Moulin, C. J., & Conway, M. A. (2008). Self-centered memories: the reminiscence bump and the self. Mem Cognit, 36(8), 1403-1414. doi:10.3758/MC.36.8.1403

[2] Rathbone, C. J., Moulin, C. J., & Conway, M. A. (2008). Self-centered memories: the reminiscence bump and the self. Mem Cognit, 36(8), 1403-1414. doi:10.3758/MC.36.8.1403

[3] Rubin, D. C., Wetzler, S. E., & Nebes, R. D. (1986). Autobiographical memory across the lifespan. In D. C. Rubin (Ed.), Autobiographical memory (pp. 202-221). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Source: Emotion, Memory & the Mind Event report.

Catherine Loveday

What is it like for people who have disruption in memory systems? What it’s like for them to be in the now, to imagine the future?

– Catherine Loveday, 4:08

Autobiographical memory is our long term memory for personal experiences and person knowledge of our life. Actually we can break it down in to two essential components, there is our knowledge and the framework of information we have and there is our sense of recollecting and experiencing. These two things fit together to give us recollective experiences.

– Catherine Loveday, 4:37

Autobiographical memories tend to be unevenly distributed over the lifespan. If I ask you to think of your favourite film, favourite book, favourite piece of music… What we find there is a tendency for people to produce and generate memories from adolescence. This is the reminiscence bump

– Catherine Loveday, 10:50

I am obsessed by Desert Island Disks. It’s my dream. I am fascinated by music and actually it’s the most amazing source of data. You ask people what music they would chose, they are asked to explain their choices, and actually what you get is autobiographical memories. That inspired a piece of work that I did looking at the reminiscence bump in relation to music

– Catherine Loveday, 15:15

It was a self-defining moment. This music they link to a whole life decision. By listening to a piece of music again they are returning to that memory that reinforces their sense of ‘this is who I am’, ‘this is what I do’, ‘this is part of my identity’.

– Catherine Loveday, 18:50

What happens when people start to lose autobiographical memories? All of the things that make me who I am are gone. I can’t go back to them, I can’t revisit them

– Catherine Loveday, 24:00

Consider the famous example of Clive Wearing, a renowned musician and musicologist at the BBC who, due to encephalitis, suffered profound retrograde and anterograde amnesia in 1985. Wearing can no longer remember anything prior to his illness, nor form new memories.  This means his ongoing sense of a conscious self is severely disrupted, and he is constantly experiencing “waking up” every 20 seconds.  Nevertheless, Mr Wearing can still play piano and has distinct – and sometimes uncontrollable – emotional responses to his music. His case helps scientists to understand how we might know defining aspects of ourselves, without storing any specific memory of them.

– Catherine Loveday

A Conversation on Memory and Self

nick_payne__320x240Nick Payne’s trilogy of plays, Constellations, Incognito, and, most recently, Elegy are in part inspired by deep scientific and philosophical questions, such as the notion of infinite parallel universes, quantum physics, free will and determinism, and recently, amnesia, memory, and how the self is created.  In his work, Payne explores the potentialities and the limits of the interplay between science and the humanities. His conversation with Anil Seth demonstrated the potentiality for collaboration between artistic and scientific explorations of memory loss, as well as the ability of theatre to explore and mimic the functioning of the brain.

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There is a sense in which the self seems to be infinite: if we consider memories as its building blocks, we can then launch the self into the future, considering all the possibilities of what we could, or could not, do. This evokes the philosophical (and scientific) concept of “free will”: a consideration of a possible action and that “one could do otherwise”.

What constitutes the self? How fragile is it?

Payne and Seth raised the question as to whether the self is a continual work of fiction: is the brain a story-telling machine, and is the self its continuous tale, with the brain continuously telling, retelling and editing stories (memories) in different ways?

What if several versions of me could co-exist simultaneously in different areas of the multiverse? Could faith, or love, just reside somewhere in the brain? Is there anything like a soul pilot, or do different mental processes underlying the self come together just in fictional terms? Is there anything more to the self than the capacity to tell stories?

Memory and creativity

Payne and Seth compared this conception of the self to art and drama specifically:  a play provides its audience with a holistic and continuous present tense experience, continuously changing, full of fabrication and confabulation.

Does the analyticity of the scientific method have anything to do with the process of drafting and re-drafting a play? In the age of science, what space is left for other forms of knowledge? In our attempt to decipher the inner and the external world, can we limit ourselves to one form of knowing? Providing a sort of vicarious experience, theatre allows the audience to get out from its habitual perspective, directly facing questions that lie at the border of science, ethics and emotional life. What sort of issues would remain unanswered if the mysteries of the brain were unveiled? Are scientists ignoring deep ethical issues? What if, as it happens in Elegy, parts of the brain storing specific fragments of one’s own life can be replaced with artificial circuits carrying out the same operations and encoding new episodic memories? What is identity if we become the persons we never wanted to?

Source: Emotion, Memory & the Mind Event report.

Nick Payne & Anil Seth

I have become increasingly interested in, if not obsessed with, exploring and investigating scientific ideas through my plays. Constellations in 2012, Incognito in 2014 and Elegy in 2016. These 3 plays attempted to grapple with, amongst other things, free will, determinism, memory, identity, amnesia, the self. Perhaps more broadly, I’ve been trying to wrestle with what makes us who we are, what constitutes ‘me’, what binds, or might bind, this me, here, now, to me tomorrow or in 50 years time, and how fragile this seems to be.

– Nick Payne & Anil Seth (5:30)

If my Constellations research forced me to accept that I was a random collection of atoms operating in a meaningless universe, itself a tiny spec in a vast ocean of meaningless universes, my research in to all things neuroscience was now asking me to confront the notion that ‘me’, my personality and my continuous self, might in fact be a work of overall fiction. As Paul Broks I think really beautifully puts it in his book In to the Silent Land,  ‘the mental processes underlying our sense of self, feelings, thoughts, memories, are scattered through different zones of the brain. There is no special point of convergence, no cockpit of the soul, no soul pilot. They come together in a work of fiction. The human being is a story-telling machine, the self is a story’.

– Nick Payne & Anil Seth (14:15)

External Resources

A collection of resources on the subject of memory gathered from across the internet.

Big unknowns: what is consciousness? | The Guardian’s Science Weekly podcast



  • Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985) ebook

Emotion, Memory & the Mind Event Report (July 2016)

What we remember, and how we remember it, constitutes the texture of human life. Just as emotions shape our sense of things, including ourselves and other people, so memories shape the sense of who we are and what we have become throughout history. How do memory and emotions contribute to lived experience and identity? Are current approaches across the mind and brain sciences adequate for the task of explaining the complex nature of feelings, sensations, memory and identity? Can we study memory and emotion in other species, are there collective memories, and have our emotional lives changed over time?


Is the self a work of fiction?

Does science tell the full story?

Memory, identity and time