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What makes us, us? Here we examine the role our memories play – and what happens when they are taken from us

I recently watched Pixar’s Inside Out, an animation that shows the emotions and inner workings of an 11 year old girl’s mind as her family moves to a new city. In the film, we see an entertaining rendition of how memories are formed, charged with emotions, and stored, with unimportant memories being tossed aside by cute, jelly bean-shaped mind workers.

While this representation is simplified (and unfortunately there are no Jelly Bean workers), I’ve been thinking about memories and how they shape us. Many people see memory as an important part of who we are. The philosopher John Locke was one of the first to suggest that memory is the foundation of our identity. And that idea makes sense. Our experiences make us who we are, don’t they? Well, as I found out, not necessarily.

If so, what happens to those who lose their memories? Does their identity just disappear along with the memories?


What can affect our memory?

To explore this idea, it is helpful to first think about memory itself and how it can be influenced. Unlike Inside Out, our memories are not shiny balls that can be neatly stored, but many different and different memories that spread through our brain. Our long-term memories actually have a physical presence in the brain, with similar memories often clumping together. It’s also generally accepted that emotions have an impact on memory – in some cases, it makes an event more memorable, but it can have the opposite effect and cause memory loss.

For example, grief can dissolve memories. Studies have shown that those who experience “complicated grief” (when feelings of grief do not subside over time) may find it difficult to recall memories that the deceased loved one is not involved in, while others experience the trauma of the Experience matters. After her mother’s death, Callsuma Ali became her father’s primary caregiver for seven years, but after his death earlier this year, Callsuma’s memory of that time has faded.

“I only remember vividly the last three years of having pictures and videos, but the seven years I’ve been at his house after my mother died is a blur,” says Callsuma. “I was told that I set up most of his care, took him to hospital appointments, and helped treat his dementia, but I really don’t remember.”

Trauma is often associated with memory loss. Lorraine Matthews only became aware of her missing memories when she looked back during therapy in which she discovered that she had been abused by her father.

“One of the hardest things was that I didn’t have a narrative memory that would match the knowledge,” explains Lorraine. “I still don’t know, although subsequent events have shown that I was right.”

For Lorraine, that trauma formed a rift and she was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder in 2016. Understandably, this has complicated the connection between memory and identity.

“The trauma has split my personality. I have parts, ”says Lorraine. “The part that I think of most as ‘me’ is an adult part of the personality. The one who is unaware of the trauma on a narrative level and who can cope with everyday life.

“Then there are the parts of my personality that contain the trauma memories. Parts that are afraid and do not know that we are now safe. These parts always exist for me, but I am often only aware of them when something triggers me. “

Dementia, and Alzheimer’s in particular, are other disorders associated with memory loss. This can be devastating to the person living with the disease and those around them. How memories shift and slip depends on the diagnosis and the progression of the disease.

“Some events, regardless of our memory of them, can form a deep line in the book of our lives.”

Then we have a brain injury, a memory thief that comes unannounced and usually follows an accident that damaged the brain. Again, the way this affects memory varies from person to person, with some people losing previous memories while others being unable to make new ones.

How does memory loss affect identity?

As you might expect, there are no straightforward answers here, and the truth is that it depends on the person who experienced the memory loss. When Claire fell off her bike in 2014, she fell into a coma and suffered memory loss. She believes that despite a lack of memories, we are who we are and that events and emotions can affect us as human beings, even if they are not remembered.

“I don’t remember much of my life rehabilitation – it feels a long way from who I am now and who I was before the injury,” says Claire. “But I believe the impact on my life is part of my identity. It has made me a little more resourceful, resilient, dependent on God and contented with less.”

Some events, regardless of our memory of them, can form a deep line in the book of our lives. For some, it helps to just turn the page and move forward. At Headway East London, a charity that helps people with brain injuries, the community was planted to reduce reliance on previous life narratives. Headway Occupational Therapist Laura Jacobs explains, “I’ve learned to focus on the other ways our identities can be shaped or shaped. In Headway, members’ identities are in the future rather than their past.

“Something is always being created – a project, a work of art, a performance or a lunch that needs to be planned, and the members become actors in times when identity is in the present and the future.”


Laura also notes that our self-esteem depends on our roles and our relationship with others. “We are all daughters and sons, maybe parents or siblings, pet owners and friends. These are big roles, and we could do better to cultivate them! I am now actively looking for other ways in which identity can be developed that are not based on memory, but on something that connects us to the here and now. Whether it’s about creating something or connecting with someone. “

Consultant psychologist Rebecca Corney explains that in addition to our roles, our moral traits can also matter. Research shows that moral identity is more important than memory for maintaining self-confidence in dementia.

“Our moral qualities, including our empathy, compassion, and value systems, are relatively preserved in Alzheimer’s disease and say more about us than our memories.”

So who we are cannot be limited to the memories we have. Certain experiences will undoubtedly influence our identities, but it is not necessarily the memory of those events that defines us, but our response to them. Our identity is a tapestry in which different strands are intertwined to make us ourselves.

“I am now actively looking for other ways in which identity can be developed that are not based on memory, but on something that connects us to the here and now.”

Make adjustments

If you have had memory loss, your identity may change. However, you can make adjustments to deal with the coping. Headway’s Laura Jacobs recommends focusing on things that are less dependent on your previous life narrative to help define identity.

“This can create a new role – such as an artist, a cook or a volunteer, or learning a new skill. Keeping your eyes on the present moment rather than the past can also really help make you feel more grounded. I strongly recommend meditation or mindfulness activities that will bring you back to your body and the moment. “

Consultative psychologist Rebecca Corney also highlights the power of talk therapy. “Psychology has a lot to offer people with memory problems, be it support for relatives or for the person themselves. For people with dementia, there are some interventions available in the NHS, such as: B. cognitive stimulation therapy to maintain and improve cognition and memory. “

A common thread that runs through advice about memory loss (whether you are the person affected or someone you love) is to be patient. Understand that things may work differently and take more time than they did before. Surround yourself with support, get professional advice and know that you are always deeper than memory.

Rebecca Corney is a counseling psychologist specializing in working with older adults and their families, providing supervision and training to colleagues.

Learn more about memory loss and memory and find a counselor to help you at counselling-directory.org.uk

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