Identity and forgetfulness

A bit of philosophical dissonance to ponder …

The observation is one of the most replicable in the literature: Whether tested in 1893 or 1999 (West & Bauer, 1999), among adults in Western cultures, the average age of earliest memory is age 3 to 3½ years. (from the APA Online)

Four- and three-year-olds can readily recall events from their second year. Yet, by the age of ten these earliest memories have receded behind what’s been dubbed the “reminiscence bump.” (from some recent Canadian research)

Add to this the sense that, without my memories, I would cease to be really me, and I find myself in a philosophical predicament. My daughter, Kaia, is unlikely to consciously remember anything that happens in the next two years. By the time she’s ten, she’ll probably have the adult “reminiscence bump” – no conscious memories before three years old.

What does this mean for her identity? Will ten-year-old Kaia be a literally different person from the Kaia I see today? Or am I wrong that my memories are key to my identity?

Perhaps – probably – there is a sensible compromise that will make sense of both the inescapable certainty that the baby is the same person as the teenager and adult, and of the intuition that our memories are a key to our identity.

But I haven’t worked it out yet. For now, let me know what you think. How do you resolve this conundrum?


2 Responses to “Identity and forgetfulness”

  1. Aaron "Hawkeye" Golas Says:

    We are not defined, I think, by our memories, but by our behavior. In that sense, ten-year-old Kaia will still be connected to two-year-old Kaia, even if indirectly.Four-year-old Kaia will remember being two, and that will affect her behavior. Ten-year-old Kaia will remember being four, and that in turn will affect her behavior. There isn’t a single wiping-the-slate moment; even if the memories themselves are lost, their influence is still propagated.

  2. Timothy Mills Says:

    I think you’re right. The great causal chain of identity (of which memory is just one thread) is at the root of the intuition that almost-thirty-year-old me (now) is the same person as almost-thirty-day-old me (the age Kaia is today).By the way, do you prefer to be called “Aaron” or “Hawkeye”?

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