Research Topic

Self and Memory: A Multidisciplinary Debate

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There is a considerable amount of variation in the way in which different authors construe the notion of autobiographical memory. One way of defining it is in terms of episodic memory, where the latter includes a reference to the self. And -- to quote Endel Tulving – “there can be no travel ...

There is a considerable amount of variation in the way in which different authors construe the notion of autobiographical memory. One way of defining it is in terms of episodic memory, where the latter includes a reference to the self. And -- to quote Endel Tulving – “there can be no travel without a traveler”.

Once this reference to a travelling self is built into the notion of episodic memory, it is only a very small step to construe such notion in terms of the construct of pre-reflective self-consciousness. Following the articulated model put forward by Sally Prebble, Donna Addis and Lynette Tippett's, prereflective self-experience -- an immediate and automatic sense of being the subject of experience -- is the precondition for episodic memory, which in turn is the precondition for phenomenological continuity: remembering episodically establishes the sense of continuity of our self over time by conveying the inherent “mineness” of the original experience into the present moment. In contrast, the sense of narrative continuity depends mainly on personal semantic memory, although information from episodic memory may also contribute.

On the face of it, others models deny that episodic memories are literal records of experience that could be relived. For example, Martin Conway argues that episodic memories are experience-near sensory-perceptual-conceptual-affective summary features of short time slices of experience, which are durably retained only if they have been embedded in autobiographical knowledge structures; otherwise, they are rapidly forgotten. In his Self-Memory-System, therefore, the notion of autobiographical memory is no longer defined in terms of episodic memory; only conceptual organization of episodic memories within the self-memory system transforms them into autobiographical memory and allows them to play a role in constructing and maintaining a coherent, stable mental representation of the self (the conceptual self) over time.

A third approach, well represented by Katherine Nelson’s work, takes autobiographical memory as a subclass of episodic memories which involve a reference to the self or are of a particular kind of relevance to the self. The sense of self in time originates from social-communicative interactions, and in particular in sharing memory narrative, which progressively lead children to rationalize memories of their expreiences in autobiographical terms. As an exponent of the social interactionist approach, Nelson has the merit of having stressed more than other authors the role of relationships in constituting a sense of self, placing herself in the wake of an important and heterogeneous tradition going back (with different accents) to Vygotsky and, in the infant research and clinical domain, to the entire object relation tradition.

Against the backdrop of the theorizing on the nature of autobiographical memory, our Research Topic aims at collecting interdisciplinary contributions concerning the self, autobiographical memory, and notably their functional and dysfunctional interactions. We shall also pay special attention to papers reflecting on the role of personal relationships in constructing the sense of self and determining the quality of autobiographic narratives.

Philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists, but also anthropologists and social scientists, have proposed various processes of self-construction and have often envisaged the topic of defense mechanisms. This is an important point, as the final goal of the debate is not only theoretical, but also practical: to better understand the nature of the self and its relationships with life stories and narrative-autobiographical capacities cannot but have a fundamental impact in clinical psychology, a context in which patients are often persons having lost the fluidity of self-memory interaction.

To propose just a few examples, some important questions to handle with are: Are there any conditions (most notably-relational conditions) favoring a better self-memory interaction and, consequently, a more coherent autobiographic memory? Or, to consider the neuropsychological domain, the old, Lockean question still remains valid: what should be said of a self having lost its memory? And, conversely: what should be said of a self having lost the sense of his own body? To put it in other words: does bodily self-awareness -- namely the capacity to form a bodily image of oneself as an entire object, and simultaneously taking this image as a subject -- have any role in development of psychological self-consciousness?


Keywords: self, autobiographical memory, personal identity, phenomenological self, bodily self-awareness, identity disorders, neuropsychological disorders


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be within the scope of the section and journal to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Frontiers reserves the right to guide an out-of-scope manuscript to a more suitable section or journal at any stage of peer review.

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