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The Temporally Continuous Self:

An Analysis of Memory and its Implications for

Personal Identity

Anastasia Platoff

Submitted to the Faculty of Bennington College, Bennington, Vermont, in partial

fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts.

June 2012

Table of Contents

A Metaphor for Self Continuity
Three Tenets of Self Continuity that Merit Examination

Self Continuity as the Crux of Personal IdentityPsychological Perspectives

I. The Cognitive Construction of Continuity
II. The Evolutionary Function of Self Continuity
III. Personal Identity as Autobiography
IV. Identity Continuity and the Role of Childhood Experiences
V. The Continuous Self in Social Interaction

Personal Identity as Memory

I. Memory Taking ShapeEncoding and Retrieving the Past and the Present
II. The Illusion of Self ContinuityMechanisms of Memory Distortion

Fractures and Obstructions in the Temporally Continuous Self

I. Early Trauma and Disorders of the Self
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Borderline Personality Disorder
II. Identity and Remembrance in the Wake of Collective Trauma

Works Cited

The focus of this review is the enduring, though controversial, axiom that perceived

self continuity is the crux of personal identity (James, 1890/1950; Erikson, 1963; Kihlstrom,

2002; Kandel, 2006; McAdams, 2001; Schacter, 1996; Scheibe, 1995). This inner experience of

spatiotemporal coherence is a tenable, pragmatic illusion that nearly all humans create, modify,

and regulate within themselves over time, both consciously and unconsciously. There is no

single motive that may be elucidated to make sense of this process; the subjective judgment

of self continuity, as a psychological phenomenon, extends to all fields of psychology. In

particular, discourses on cognitive, evolutionary, narrative, neurological, developmental, and

social psychology each have distinct, well-founded explanations for how and why humans think

of themselves as continuous, stable entities, despite the inexorable vicissitudes that accompany

our material existence from start to finish. The issues addressed in this paper will concern the

arguments posited by these aforementioned areas of discourse and research.

At present, I am introducing the idea of self continuity in an abstract and somewhat

reductionistic form, as if the development of continuous personal identity were akin to a rivers

current, moving along a bounded trajectory. I will draw on this metaphor to begin the discussion

of continuity from a purely conceptual frame of reference; the ensuing critical analysis will

concretize these abstract foundations.

A Metaphor For Self Continuity

Think about the trajectory of a flowing river. Branches and other raw material will

frequently amass within the overall stream, and circumstances that entail changes in velocity,

whether or not they are anticipated, will be encountered. Greater impediments to this fluidity

such as tree trunks that spontaneously partition the current, extreme fluctuations in the stream,

and embankments erected by othersdepending on their magnitude and severity, may bring the

river to a standstill, preventing further progression. More powerful rivers are sometimes able to

surmount such obstacles and reinstate some semblance of their past motion.

The metaphor of identity continuity as a river channel is also apt in the sense that, if one

withdraws a handful of water from a certain point in the stream, its quality will surely be

different from water taken from other sections of the river. It has been extracted from a distinct

place in time and, consequently, this handful of water has an isolated existence and history,

separate from the broader current. By the same token, this small amount of water still provides

an illustration of the nature of the river; it remains an integral part of the whole.

Continuity metaphors exert a strong attraction in people because they depict certain

facets of the self as having their origins in the past, allowing individuals to retrospectively trace

archetypal vestiges to what they feel may be their true spatiotemporal source (Kagan, 1998).

The river metaphor is naturalistic, which further augments its evocative and explanatory powers.

Although it is simplistic, the continuity-as-river metaphor is not incompatible with scientific

explanations for the human perception of self continuity, and for that reason, it provides us with

a valuable sketch of the processes that will be addressed in this work.

Furthermore, this metaphor illuminates two noteworthy paradoxes that comprise the self

continuity paradigm. The first paradox is that the continuity cannot occur without change, yet

subjective continuity is often perceived as unwavering. The personal experience of sameness

between past and present dispositions, beliefs, or attributes is a genuine feeling that can be

further authenticated by the observation of close others. However, this nearly universal

experience has no concrete veracity. A person is never truly the same, physically or

psychologically, from one moment to the next. It is the perception of sameness that acts as the

vital link, coalescing time and lived experience (i.e., memory), despite ones consciousness of


The second paradox of the self continuity paradigm, skillfully conceptualized by William

James (1890/1950), has been labeled by Knowles and Sibicky (1990) as the one-in-many-

selves paradox. This term refers to the problem of the unitary self versus multiple selves; James

described an individual as ha[ving] as many social selves as there are distinct groups of persons

about whose opinion he [sic] cares. He generally shows a different side of himself to each of

these different groups. Nonetheless, one concurrently experiences an unbrokenness in the

stream of selves, and a sense of familiarity among all of themin other words, a

metaphysical self of all the other selves. (James, 1890/1950)

Kashima et al. (2002) identified two interlinked but separable components of this

paradox: one is the contextual multiplicity of social selves, and the other is the temporal

continuity of personal identity. James and more recent scholars of cognition have primarily

accounted for these intersecting perceptions of plurality and consistency with models of

connectionism. Neuroscientific research on memory has provided compelling information on

parallel distributed processing and other connectionist models that account for the subjective

appraisal of both a unitary self and multiple selves, both of which are necessary for continuity.

These two paradoxes have perhaps magnified the intrinsic ambiguity of self continuity as

a theoretical concept. However, the phenomenon itself is not as oblique. The perception of the

self as temporally continuous requires recollection and judgmentactive, context-based

procedures. But continuity is also shaped in circumstances of no explicit self-awareness

(Kihlstrom, 2002; Ross and Wilson, 2002; Schacter, 1996). This suggests that continuity is not

only an attractive state of being, but a remarkably utilitarian creation, as well. The processes and

motives behind this creation, as they relate to identity, are what I plan to explain.

Three Tenets of Self Continuity That Merit Examination

At present, the most pertinent tenet for initial inquiry is the proposition that the judgment

of self continuity is the foundation of personal identitya view propounded by William James

in his magnum opus, The Principles of Psychology (1890). In this first section, the explanations

and validity of this enduring hypothesis will be assessed from the vantage points of more recent

developmental, cognitive, evolutionary, autobiographical, and social research on identity.

In contemporary psychology, the self and identity are major topics of fascination, which

may explain the resurgence of interest in the representative of early-American functionalism:

William James. James thoughts on consciousness and the self have weathered over a century of

discussion, and although some technical and rhetorical particularities have been adjusted in

accordance with contemporary science, the fundamental components of his ideas have remained

extraordinarily accurate and applicable to recent findings on the relationship between memory,

consciousness, and continuity.

In connection with James theory, this inquiry will be analyzed with reference to the

aforementioned list of psychological discourses. To briefly outline this sequence of propositions:

(a) from the perspective of cognitive psychology, viewing the self as continuous is an efficient

way to connect senses, thoughts, and experiences into a structure that seems coherent and

practical; (b) from an evolutionary standpoint, self continuity enables self-prediction, which

serves the adaptive function of self-preservation; (c) intriguing research on autobiographical

memory suggests that, because identity is an active, diachronic configuration, humans have the

natural tendency to select and consolidate their meaningful experiences into an expository,

continuous chronology; (d) this theory is also influenced by developmental factorsthe qualities

of the early relationship with ones primary caregiver and, later, the undertaking of individuation

and autonomous judgment, often have tremendous impact on how temporally continuous we

view ourselves and our experiences; (e) and finally, social considerations, such as self-

representations, social feedback, culturally normative behavior, and contextual environment,

may promote a perception of identity that either accommodates, ignores, or is governed by

fluctuations in experience, locations, and relations with others.

The second tenet of this review is the designation of memory as the system that fosters

and shapes perceptions of continuity, and therefore has paramount implications for personal

identity. An illustration of the influential elements of memory will include: an outline of the

brain regions essential for long-term memory; encoding, storage, and retrieval processes (e.g.

superficial versus elaborative encoding, associative versus strategic retrieval); affective,

motivational, and cognitive mechanisms that influence perceived continuity (both implicit and

explicit); and the interactive effects between the quality of the present state and the nature of the

retrieved memory. In summary, this section will first consider neuroscientific research that

clarifies how neural activity results in subjective experience, and then give priority to cognitive

studies that explicate how individuals decipher, utilize, and reconstruct memories for the purpose

of identity cohesion. These areas of research will give us insight into the degree to which

temporal continuity is an illusion, and how this illusion is established and maintained.

The third issue that warrants investigation is the antithetical experience of a discontinuous

identity. The factors that precipitate obstructions in conscious links between past and present

selves reveal that the framework of continuity, despite its general adaptability to fluctuation, is

not invariably resilient. Moreover, an evaluation of phenomena such as identity pathology and

cultural dislocation, which often coincide with a certain degree of trauma, may help to

corroborate the importance of self continuity by revealing the detrimental effects of its absence.

Common to most dissociative phenomena is the experience of the self as fragmentedas though

each part of ones identity belongs to a fixed time or context and that these selves are incoherent

when arranged next to one another. As a consequence, these rigid boundaries prohibit voluntary

movement between recalled episodes in time, and thus undermine the ability to identify the

continuities that flow between past and present thought and experience.

After these three propositions have been integrated, the conclusion of this work will

feature questions left unanswered due to the limited scope of this review and provide suggestions

for future research in this domain.

Self Continuity as the Crux of Personal Identity:

Psychological Perspectives

Personal identity is not a representation of perfectly harmonious, unified elements.

Rather, within every individual there exists an aggregate of feelings, habits, and thoughts (in

other words, an assemblage of selves) which are constantly being appropriated, disowned,

augmented, and weakened by the person who possesses them (James, 1890/1950). A continuous

identity is maintained by a diachronic search for resemblance, but the framework of continuity

also encompasses an infinite succession of changes in its content. Therefore, the mere desire to

feel temporally continuous is insubstantial; if the resemblance among changes cannot be

realized, then continuity cannot be ascertained.

It must not be taken to mean more than these grounds warrant, or treated as a sort of
metaphysical or absolute Unity in which all differences are overwhelmed. The past and present
selves compared are the same just so far as they are the same, and no farther. A uniform feeling
of 'warmth,' of bodily existence . . . pervades them all; and this is what gives them a generic unity,
and makes them the same in kind. But this generic unity coexists with generic differences just as
real as the unity. And if from the one point of view they are one self, from others they are as truly
not one but many selves. And similarly of the attribute of continuity; it gives its own kind of unity
to the self -- that of mere connectedness, or unbrokenness, a perfectly definite phenomenal thing
(James, [1890/1950], pp. 334-335).

Although self continuity is, in part, a subjective illusion, James significantly notes that

this omnipresent feeling of sameness is not simply the product of retrospective fabrication. In

order for an individual to perceive continuity between temporal episodes, there must be a certain

quality that permeates within and between these episodes, forming links within the stream of

experience, rather than treating ones autobiography as an array of discrete episodes. James

accounts for this feeling of familiarity or warmth from a number of vantage points. At its most

basic level, personal existence is felt as continuous and unified because of our bodies,

our material selves, which we possess from birth until death. Accordingly, all thoughts,

feelings, and behaviors are also in our sole possession, inseparable from our existence. The

actions, thoughts, and feelings of others may stir us, but do not hold as much weight, for we do

not feel the same sense of ownership over the movements of others. We absolve our own

anomalous actions either by justifying their occurrence or proclaiming them as unrepresentative

of who we really are. In contrast, we find that oversights made by others are easily derided and

treated as failures in the others identity (e.g. Wilson and Ross, 2003; Skowronski al., 2004).

We hear from our parents various anecdotes about our infant years, but we do not

appropriate them as we do our own memories. Those breaches of decorum awaken no blush,

those bright sayings no self-complacency (James, [1890/1950], p. 335). These stories, because

they have no representation of self-feeling or first-person perspective, do not resonate within us

like the intimacy of our own experiences. The same air of disinterest is present when we recall

nebulous shards of memory from a distant pastscenes that are no longer evocative or detailed

and contain no sense of warmth or subjectivity generally do not seem to belong to us.

James distinguishes personal identity as a stream of subjective consciousness, a continual

appropriation and assimilation of thoughts, all possessing the warm feeling tone that marks

them as mine. Memory facilitates this process, allowing access to the past in order to survey

the present and contemplate the future. Without memory, there is no temporal link, nor any

potential for discrimination, among this assemblage of selves:

The knowledge the present feeling has of the past ones is a real tie between them; so is their
resemblance; so is their continuity; so is the ones appropriation of the other: all are real ties,
realized in the judging Thought of every moment, the only place where disconnections could be
realized, did they exist . . . the ties and the disconnections are exactly on a par, in this matter of
self-consciousness (James, [1890/1950], pp. 359-360).

If continuity cannot be perceived without memory, discontinuities in this case would be

rendered equally indiscernible. The reason why individuals appropriate knowledge of the past

with the present, James argues, is that the grounds for appropriation (i.e., continuity and

resemblance) outweigh the perceived grounds for disowning such knowledge (i.e., temporal

distance). Over time, these continuities become realized as habits and sensibilitiesfoundations

upon which new experiences are shaped. Having been acquired over a long temporal duration

and maintained through repetition, conscious awareness is not necessary for these tendencies to

take effect because they are implicit components of ones general character. For this reason,

many defining traits of personal identity are resistant to change (James, 1890/1950; Grigsby,

2001; Schacter, 1996) but undergo adaptation relative to the accumulation of experience and


The legacy of William James ideas on self continuity can be found in contemporary

works of cognitive psychology (e.g. Hoelter, 1985; Kihlstrom et al., 2002; Reid & Deaux, 1996;

Ross & Wilson, 2002; Scheibe, 1995; Jacoby, 1988), developmental psychology (e.g. Bird &

Reese, 2008; Erikson, 1963; Kagan, 1998; Kohut, 1978; McAdams, 2001; Pasupathi, 2001),

social psychology (e.g. Nelson, 2008; Sedikides et al., 2008; Shrauger & Schoeneman, 1979;

Tafarodi et al., 2003), and neuroscience (e.g. Kandel, 2006; Grigsby, 2001; LeDoux, 2002;

Schacter, 2003). However, the theory that identity necessitates subjective continuity and

coherence over time has also encountered a fair amount of dissent, particularly from self-defined

postmodern psychologists, who contend that identity fragmentation is a certainty that individuals

should concede so they may extricate themselves from the confines of an illusory wholeness.

For example, Paul C. Vitz (1996) argues that the hallmarks of modern psychology have

been scientific reductionism, materialist determinism, and autonomous individualism, all of

which have depreciated the notion of human dignity. He defends Gergens description of the

contemporary self as saturated, as opposed to coherent. Influential factors in 21st-century

society, such as increased locational movement, pervasive media propaganda, and frequent

interactions with peoples belonging to different cultures and adhering to diverse lifestyles, he

claims, have left no time for personal integration or reflection. In such a fast-paced society, the

variety of situations encountered on a daily basis require immediate response and thus restrain all

possibilities for self-prediction. Vitz deems the modern view of a core self an illusion,

reasoning that the theory of an authentic self is inauthentic because no subjective judgment of a

core identity could have veracity in an environment typified by chaos. The self, then, is

perpetually indeterminate, motivated by the faculty of free will.

Cultural anthropologist Katherine Ewing also emphasizes the futility of attempting

to maintain personal coherence in the face of rapid contextual changes. In her opinion, the

notion of the self as unified is an illusion based on semiotic ideas, which often mutates into

an endeavor to reify the theory in psychoanalytic and philosophical writings. Instead, Ewing

argues that the process of shifting selves is constant, but occurs in the unconscious, which

enables us to organize our experiences into what feels like timeless self-representations, although

their components are inconsistent and context-dependent. When situated in an explicit conflict

between multiple self-representations, individuals resort to symbolic rhetoric to reconcile this

anxiety, such as insisting that they have retained their temporal continuity, but that external

factors impinge on their ability to express this sameness in cross-situational contexts.

Ewing (1990) takes issue with what Heinz Kohut has labeled the cohesive

and fragmented selves. Kohut described the cohesive self as the healthy development of

flexible, autonomous self-representations, while fragmentations of the self manifest when

situational and relational changes are too frequent and rigid to maintain a consistent sense of

wholeness. Ewing judges this polarity as a fallacious representation of the psychological and

symbolic processes involved in such a phenomenon; it underscores the self as autonomous and

bounded, while objectifying relational and cultural factors. Ewing posits that, as long as

individuals are able to shift their self-representations to suit the corresponding context and

interaction, they may experience a sense of continuity despite the existence of multiple,

unintegrated or partially integrated self-representations.

Thus far, the major points of skepticism regarding psychological theories of continuity

are: 1) the reductionistic view that personal identity is constructed by the self as an autonomous

agent, and 2) the ineffective reification of self continuity from a symbolic idea to an observable

reality. Vitz and Ewing agree that the perception of temporal fluidity is a false notion created by

individuals as a coping device for evident incongruities in daily life. Psychologist Lynne Layton

takes this discourse a step further in Whos That Girl? Whos That Boy? (2004) by explicating

views of continuity and fragmentation from the dual positions of Anglo-American

psychoanalytic theory and postmodern feminism. While psychoanalytic theory considers

fragmentation as evidence of psychological maladjustment and/or inadequate attachment styles

in early life, the postmodern feminist view is that fragmentationor to use the preferred

term, multiplicityof the self is a means of subverting the cultural-symbolic system that

pressures individuals to commit to identity classifications, to forfeit being for meaning. By

celebrating diversity, ambiguity, and indeterminacy of the self, options become boundless

because culture no longer governs or oppresses individual identity.

The problems with Anglo-American theories of identity, from Laytons perspective, are

that fragmentation is not considered as a byproduct of a rigidly defined culture and that cohesion,

in these terms, is based on the presumption that normative thoughts and behavior are healthy.

However, Layton emphasizes the importance of having an identity to call ones own:

What is necessary is some way of recognizing the self in ones fragments, or . . . a growing ability
to call each voice I. What you call this I has all kinds of ramifications, but some experience
of a cohesive I, of something that recognizes itself even in its most disparate elements, seems to
be necessary to relieve suffering. This sense of unity that one identifies as a core self may be no
more than a cultural artifact, but it is one that is necessary not only to good mental health but to
ethical behavior (1994, p. 136).

While some postmodernist psychologists may criticize identity cohesion as a model of

oppression and valorize fragmentation as a struggle against these forces, Layton still sees

something advantageous in an individuals ability to recognize the core self as a unified entity.

Without an accountable I, individuals have no limits on behavior, no means of self-prediction,

and are consequently governed by the (self-imposed) ambition to escape being imposed on by

others. Her major criticism of postmodernism, like that of many other psychologists, is that it

calls for a multiplicity of selves without taking into consideration the psychological effects of

living with discrete selves within the same body. Despite the possibilities offered by continual

reinvention, Layton ultimately affirms that a sense of identity and agency are crucial

components of the ability to be good to both the self and to others (p. 136).

The ethos of 21st-century Western culture may indeed be characterized by rapid

innovation, but the effects of these frequent sociocultural transformations on the individuals

capacity to preserve the perception of continuity are unknown. The notion of identity continuity

should not be mistaken as analogous to an obstinate or immutable sense of self over time. The

construction of a continuous identity should be viewed as a malleable, diachronically-formed

network of subjective associations that not only accommodates, but necessitates change for its

development and crystallization. The pertinent question here is the extent to which ones sense

of identity continuity can benefit from acclimating to vicissitudes, and at what point such

changes begin to overwhelm ones motivation and potential for personal coherence. To unravel

this issue, it is necessary to analyze self continuity as a psychological process while taking into

account the factors that exist outside of the individual, which can either foster or damage this


I. The Cognitive Construction of Continuity

The exaggerated expectation of consistency is a common error. We are prone to think that the
world is more regular and predictable than it really is, because our memory automatically and
continuously maintains a story about what is going on, and because the rules of memory tend
to make that story as coherent as possible and to suppress alternatives . . . The confidence we
experience as we make a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that it is right.
Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with
which is comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable . . . When

a compelling impression of a particular event clashes with general knowledge, the impression
commonly prevails (Kahneman, 2011).

The content of human cognition can be depicted, in part, as a copious assortment of

seemingly trivial details about the lived past. Interspersed in this collection are formative life

experiences, which encapsulate significant motifs that have patterned and shaped the overall

configuration of subjective experience (Engel, 1999). When placed in isolation from pivotal

episodes, the fragmentary details of our histories are easily interpreted as insignificant, despite

the fact that these shards of knowledge are the primary constituents of the context, movement,

and tenor of everyday life (Barclay & DeCooke, 1988).

Life episodes, profound or trifling, do not survive in memory as intact portraits of

experience. From the original event onward, individuals will recall their experience in an

incomplete form; temporal distance transforms the specifics of daily affairs into relics,

containing only the impressions they have left upon us (Bartlett, 1932). When brought to mind,

these events are not accurately reproduced, but instead are rebuilt from vestiges of meaning and

imaginatively furnished with other self-knowledge to provide an image of the past that seems to

have integrity. For example, autobiographies are structured chronologically, but they comprise

experiences that have been schematized by their creatorsthey are necessarily selective to fit a

template of self-conception.

Two experiments conducted by Barclay and DeCooke (1988) found that, in both the

written records and the verbal recollection of various types of autobiographical events,

participants organized their experiences into semantically-congruent categories that were in

accordance with their current self-perceptions. The participants instinctively integrated their

diverse experiences to typify themes of personal relevance. Participants did not consider discrete,

daily routines as memorable, but they recognized them with great accuracy and perceived them

as self-fulfilling on the whole. Similarly, distinct life events that were perceived as meaningful

became larger allegorical constructions, exemplifying life themes, self-schema, and enduring

attitudes and traits. When organized into categories of personal meaning, the remembered past

becomes an intelligible frame of reference for the present. Since many life episodes are not

initially experienced with such clarity, the consolidation of continuous life themes is often a

retrospective, reflective effort.

A host of studies have demonstrated the impact of unconscious cognitive processes on

thought, behavior, and motivation relating to self-appraisals (e.g. Ross & Wilson, 2003;

Rusting, 1999; Schacter, 2003; Skowronski, et al., 2004). For example, a classic study by

Markus (1986) had participants rate their attitudes towards various political issues in 1973 and

again in 1982. In the second session, individuals were also asked to recall what their attitudes

had been back in 1973. Remembrances typically corresponded poorly to opinions as originally

expressed, with respondents perceiving that they were more attitudinally stable than was actually

observed (Markus, 1986). Cognitive biases of retrospection modified individuals

autobiographies to give the impression of stability regardless of the changes that had occurred.

We search for continuous strands of meaning that link the past and present into a coherent

personal history, making causal connections between temporally distant events and selectively

attending to what we view as self-representative (Ross & Wilson, 2003). We rationalize, distort,

and neglect past actions that appear incongruous with our true selves so that we may reduce

cognitive dissonance and other threats to identity consistency (Schacter, 2003; Turner, 1976).

The ways in which cognitive mechanisms of memory distortion nurture these beliefs will be

discussed later on in this paper. At present, the excerpt offered by Daniel Kahneman applies to

our preliminary question of why cognitive processes facilitate the experience of a continuous


When evaluating phenomena related to our personal identities, the implicit incentive for

internal coherence is often a more tenacious force than any conscious commitment to objectivity

and accuracy. Subjective judgments about personal identity arise largely from a heuristic method

of interpretationa strategy that is efficient, practical, learned over time, and unique to the

individual (Grigsby, 2001). In the course of development, we acquire procedural knowledgea

cognitive repertoire of rules, habits, and skills that are employed without explicit awareness and

are unavailable to introspection. Although it is impossible to recognize the systems that govern

these reflexive procedures, we may indirectly learn about our skills and habits by analyzing our

performance on cognitive and motor tasks (Kihlstrom, 2002). Once we have discerned our own

mental and behavioral patterns, they become features of our declarative knowledge, i.e.,

information that we can consciously harness, allowing us to cultivate a set of expectations and

representations of ourselves in the world. These self-schemata can be considered from multiple

temporal orientationsan individual may reflect on the past and realize that many of his/her

habits and attitudes have remained consistent despite fluctuations and adjustments in other

realms of personal life. This recognition of historic continuity prompts the hypothetical future

self to be construed on the basis of prior self-knowledge. In this way, the self-concept becomes

the regulator of individual behavior (Markus & Nurius, 1986).

The heuristic process of deciphering patterns and building cognitive models reveals the

pragmatism of identity development; it is an internal operation, but one that can be empirically

observed. Individuals recognize contexts in which they are not feeling or acting

like themselves, but this sentiment implies only a transient change, as if some feature of the

self has deviated from its continuous trajectory and is obliged to return to its stable route. The

cognitive representation of the self as continuous is on one hand a functional, subjective illusion;

on the other hand, continuity and change can be spotted in an individuals disposition and

conduct, as well as discussed objectively with close others. The exaggerated expectation of

consistency, the ease with which we interpret associated phenomena as causal, and the tendency

to judge temporally distant events as inextricably bound together by meaning are some of the

cognitive errors that turn ontological continuity into a transparent illusion.1 However, the

practical functions of such beliefsthe convenience, adaptability, and self-assurancegenerally

outweigh any negative implications of slightly biased cognition in daily life.

II. The Evolutionary Function of Self Continuity

The key is mans power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds
them up in certain directions useful to him (Darwin, [1859/1909], p. 46).

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been
formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.
But I can find out no such case (p. 194).

From an evolutionary perspective, the notion of the temporally continuous self can be

recognized as a paradigm of adaptationin other words, as a product of natural selection. Our

mental faculties and the mechanisms by which they influence thought and behavior are evolved

systems that operate to ensure our survival. Although we are not in control of our environments,

we have inherited relatively homogeneous systems of behavioral response based on the trial and

error methods evolved from hereditary variations in our animal ancestors. In the same way,

consciousnessof the self and of others, of the past and the futureis the result of ancestral

evolution (Kandel, 2006). Self-awareness affords us the capacity to realize our continuity over

1 See complete discussion in section 2, part II.

time, which in turn lends itself to self-prediction: an adaptive means of self-preservation. In this

way, the perception of self continuity is a conditioned agent of order (i.e., habit) that navigates

humans through erratic habitats, tracing a small but meaningful element of self-determinism

through chance environments.

The structure of continuous identity development has remarkable parallels to the structure

of Darwins theory of evolution: in the aggregate of all things I, the individual retains what is

relevant and useful and abandons that which runs counter to past and present self-knowledge and

circumstances, so that the future self will exist as a coherent extension of past experience. Self-

perceptions are not determined by the arbitrary environmental conditions surrounding the

individual, nor are they purely autonomous constructionsthere is a bidirectional link between

the internal and external worlds of the individual. Because they are interdependent,

discontinuities in one of these spheres can threaten the stability of the other (Kagan, 1998;

Kohut, 1978). Similar to the evolution of a species, personal identity can be seen as a process

that interacts with and influences the biological and environmental conditions from which it

emerges (Grigsby, 2001). We have established that the cognitive formation of self continuity

whether it concerns stable self-representations or perceived fluidity of experienceis a

cumulative development. An individuals character acquires consistency from procedural

learning and becomes an expression of procedural knowledge over time.

Character is the aspect of personality consisting of the routine, typical things that are done

repetitively (Grigsby, 2001). Individuals are frequently defined by others in terms of these

distinguishing properties (e.g., extroverted, flaky, impulsive) because they are continuously

expressed, even if they are not recognized as continuous self-conceptions by the individual. Otto

Fenichel writes that character is the habitual mode of bringing into harmony the taks presented

by internal demands and by the external world . . . a function of the constant, organized, and

integrating part of the personality which is the ego (1945, p. 427). The ego serves an adaptive

role in daily life, attempting to coalesce thought and behavior into a coherent template for self-

expression. Through experience, we learn what behaviors and self-representations are

appropriate in certain contexts and function accordingly. Domain-specific adaptations comprise

implicit mechanisms working in parallel, and because these processes are shrouded by our

unconscious, they do not contradict our vital phenomenological experience of wholeness and


Moreover, Homo sapiens are not equipped with cognitive capabilities necessary to

recognize the concurrent workings of multiple processing systems that govern thought and

action, but there is no evidence to suggest that such a faculty would serve as an adaptive

function. The perception of self continuity does not preclude our ability to adapt to

circumstances that demand or motivate changes in our thought and behavior. If this were the

case, the self would no longer be perceived as an autonomous individual, but rather a detached,

indeterminate entity governed only by the concerns of the present moment. With no temporal

continuity, self-prediction would be futile; although implicit memory and perception would act

as our unconscious guides in daily life, we would not have the conscious episodic and semantic

associations needed to utilize our past experience as a reference for the present and future. We

would live as continuous entities on a path of maturation, yet lack the ability to recognize these

developments in ourselves. If individuals could not judge any of their attributes, habits, beliefs,

or skills as continuous over their life span, nor receive consistent feedback from others about

these qualities, then they would be left with illogical, mercurial models of personal identity. The

evolution of anythinghistory, knowledge, humans, characterexists on a trajectory, albeit

fluctuating and unpredictable, that is only meaningful when considered as a whole. We cannot

adapt to the present without the accrued knowledge of its relationship with our past; we must

know what to preserve and what to leave behind in order to survive.

Conceivably, what is most essential to the evolutionary consideration of personal identity

is the universally human awareness of mortality. Beyond the empirical manifestations of ones

own continuous character traits, the need to feel continuous is made paramount by the

knowledge that we materialize from a void and retreat into another, with some span of ascension

connecting the two. Invariably, The Life Story begins with birth and ends with death. This

understanding diffuses our existence as a species and impels the creation of an identity with

certain stipulations: just as time moves forward, so is personal identity on a diachronic track.

However, unlike historical time, experiential time is temporary. The continuity that one

perceives is not based on chronological history, but rather on ones subjective experience and

understanding of said history. The life story that each of us creates and internalizes is founded on

the unsettling awareness of temporality, and thus our habits, preferences, aversions, quirks, and

secrets are elevated to the level of the symbolic, as eternal emblems of I. Motifs of selfhood

must be continually garnered into an aggregate because, although one knows that life will end,

one cannot know when. With this uncertain certainty, we find assurance in self-assurance.

III. Personal Identity as Autobiography

The unfolding drama of life is revealed more by the telling than by the actual events told. Stories
are not merely chronicles, like a seccretarys minutes of a meeting, written to report exactly
what transpired and at what time. Stories are less about facts and more about meanings. In the
subjective and embellished telling of the past, the past is constructedhistory is made (McAdams,
1993, p. 28)

Personal narratives pose a difficulty in the sense that idiosyncratic experience cannot be

generalized to a population (McAdams, 2001). However, the psychology of life stories and

autobiographical memory have recently become major subjects of interest for researchers in the

fields of developmental, social, and cognitive psychology (e.g. Walker et al., 2009; Habermas &

Bluck, 2000; Pasupathi & Mansour, 2006; McLean, 2008; Wilson & Ross, 2003). Salient life

themes, retrospective interpretation of events, structural complexity and coherence, and the use

of allegory are a few of the innumerable self-defining features that can be revealed through

written and oral narratives. Additionally, individual life stories reflect cultural norms and

assumptions (McAdams, 2001), level of identity development (Neimeyer & Rareshide, 1991),

and age differences in autobiographical reasoning (Pasupathi & Mansour, 2006).

Engel (1999) writes that remembrance of the personal past is driven by two opposing

forcesone is personal, the other is social: first, the creation of a meaningful chronology fulfills

the individuals need to experience the self as temporally continuous. The remembered self can

have explanatory power for the remembering self, offering a cogent illustration of personal

identity over time; second, autobiographical memory allows the individual to advance a

particular self-representation that fits the current social situation and elicits affirmative feedback

from others. Once again, these dual motives exemplify the concomitant needs for unity and

multiplicity and, with a likeness to the river metaphor, an autobiographical narrative can capture

both of these perspectives.

When looking back on ones life as a whole, personal identity can appear to have

developed in a continuous and cogent manner, so that the present self is bound to the past by

infinite links of similitude. By contrast, when the self is extracted from a discrete episode to

exemplify a particular attribute or self-schema, it gives the impression of being synchronic: it is

representative of the self in fixed time. Based on the type of milieu that is soliciting

reminiscence, the individual will be inclined to narrate his or her experience from the point of

view warranted by the context. For example, if a student is motivated to express self-

enhancement in front a disparaging teacher, s/he may communicate change over time by

imparting a perspective of distance between the past self and present self (Wilson & Ross, 2003).

If a past episode is consistent with ones current self-representations, it will be approached from

the perspective of familiarity.

The purposeful shifts in ones interpretation of past selves illustrates the interactive

construction of personal identity through narrativein equal measure, we influence and are

influenced by our recollections. This continual reconstruction of the past follows McAdams

(2001) statement that human intentionality is at the heart of narrative. Accounts of the personal

past are necessarily selective, and the articulation of an integrative life story not only demands

human intention, but a sophisticated understanding of how events have unfolded and influenced

the current self. Habermas and Bluck (2000) argue that autobiographical reasoning and life

narrativestwo manifestations of the life storycan be assessed with respect to four types of

global coherence: temporal, biographical, causal, and thematic. While autobiographical memory

begins to develop in childhood, and life narratives are formalized in adulthood, they claim that

the cognitive tools and social-motivational demands needed to construct a coherent life story

emerge during adolescence.

Verbal remembering emerges in infants as early as 16 to 20 months of age, but is largely

dependent on adults prompting and sustaining the topical focus (Habermas & Bluck, 2000).

Around 30 months, children start to take a more active role in maintaining focus on a topic of

discussion, and by talking about memories with others, they begin to discern which memories

are worth telling. Nelson (1988) has found that between the ages of 2 and 5, children begin to

form generalized scripts for episodic information that determine normative sequence of actions,

important actors, locations, and objects. These scripts contain a hierarchical structure, so that the

fundamental elements of a story are emphasized, while the peripheral features play a less

conspicuous role. Children advance from these scripts to the method of constructing stories from

an evaluative perspective, with a format that often includes a temporal sequence of events, a

setting, an identified problem, and the necessary steps toward resolution. In using a story

template to organize events, children learn to recognize the causal links between a given problem

and its solution.

However, most 5- to 8-year-olds, when asked to dictate the unfolding of autobiographical

events, seldom make any mention of the past in their narratives (Engel, 1999). Children around

the age of 10 devise a cultural concept of biography, but have yet to access the cognitive ability

to interpret disparate personal events as thematically, temporally, causally, or biographically

consistent. In addition to undeveloped cognitive tools, Habermas and Bluck propose that

children lack life stories because the psychosocial motivations and demands to construct an

explanatory account of experience are not initiated until early- to mid-adolesence.

Framed within Eriksons (1963) stage theory of identity development, the onset of

adolesence encompasses the psychosocial conflict of identity versus role confusion. The

preceding stage of industry versus inferiority problematizes the childs experience of him/herself

in societyfrom the ages of 6 to 12, children begin to recognize themselves as individuals with

a particular social status, which forces them to confront issues of responsibility, self-confidence,

personal skills, morality, and how family and social milieu have influenced these perceptions.

The subsequent stage of identity versus role confusion (lasting roughly from ages 12 to 18)

inspires individuals to configure their diverse roles, attributes, preferences, talents, and beliefs

into an integrated biographical structure that is internally coherent and accepted by ones peers.

This socially-driven need for identity commitment requires increased introspection and

judgment, which in turn spur the creation of a life story. Erikson writes, To be [an] adult means,

among other things, to see ones own life in continuous perspective (1958, p.111). The

autobiographical narrative is an important channel through which continuity is realized and

assimilated into ones working memory and life story:

A coherent life narrative must account for change and development over time. Thus, it is essential
to interrelate past and present selves by establishing causal links between life circumstances
or events and ones personal development. Global causal coherence provides a diachronic
understanding of how individuals remain themselves in spite of change (i.e., maintain self-
continuity) and a biographical understanding of how previous experiences have shaped oneself
(Habermas & Bluck, 2000, p. 757).

The tendency to view identity as a diachronic process obliges individuals to justify and

take heed of changesi.e., the aspects of personality and experience that appear incongruous

with an indviduals criteria for what exemplifies personal continuity. A body of research on age

differences in autobiographical reasoning and narrative formation has shown that the stories of

younger versus older adults vary on a number of significant structural characteristics, including

representations of temporal continuity versus change, thematic coherence, self-event

connections, event-event connections, and levels of reflective processing (McAdams, 2001;

Pasupathi & Mansour, 2006; Neimeyer & Rareshide, 1991). A number of these investigators

have also found evidence to suggest that gender differences shape the development of narrative

identity, due to factors such as generational and cultural understandings of gender roles

(McLean, 2008) and sex-specific qualities of maternal scaffolding in childhood (McLean &

Mansfield, 2011).

Although previous studies on narrative development have consistently found a lack of

gender differences in autobiographical reasoning (e.g., McLean, 2005; McLean & Pratt, 2006;

McLean & Thorne, 2003), the reports in McLeans (2008) study indicated more processing and

more thematic coherence in the stories of female participants, regardless of age. One possible

explanation for these gender differences could be that this study, unlike the previous studies

cited above, used an interview to assess autobiographical reasoning, rather than written

measurements. McLean mentions that the interview context affords a level of social intimacy

with which female participants may have been more comfortable or familiar, prompting them to

provide more elaborated narratives.

In another study, McLean & Manfield (2011) observed further evidence for gender

differences in autobiographical reasoning. The researchers examined processes of narrative

identity development in conversations between adolescents and mothers about important

emotional events. Mothers displayed more supportive scaffolding behaviors toward younger

adolescents and boys, encouraging them to elaborate on the stories they told. This maternal

reassurance did not manifest in mothers conversations with older adolescents and girls, who

openly disclosed and elaborated on emotional events without reiterative questioning. McLean &

Mansfield (2011) propose that autobiographical reasoning in narratives of emotional events

involve the willingness to self-disclose, to discuss vulnerability, and a level of self-reflection that

are conducive to normative female identity development and socialization processes. The

developmental confines of the normative male gender role may preclude young boys from

practicing these autobiographical reasoning behaviors until they are so compelled in mid- to late

adolescence, as demonstrated in Eriksons fifth stage of identity development.

Our autobiographies develop and change across the life course as we adapt to age-related

life transitions and unpredictable turning points. McAdams observed that narrative identity work

in early to middle adulthood concentrates on the articulation, expansion, and refinement of self-

conceptions or personal imagoes: the idealized personifications of the self as a protagonist in the

narrative. The integration of these imagoes in a single life story can resolve the one-in-many-

selves paradox identified by William James. From late adolescence to early adulthood, we learn

that the self-as-disinterested-daughter, the self-as-romantic-idealist, and the self-as-over-zealous-

student can peacefully coexist in a single autobiography, although it can take a great deal of time

and reflection to locate the patterns of thematic coherence within this multiplicity.

This process of integration entails what Habermas and Bluck (2000) have deemed

autobiographical reasoning, defined as the ability to link the self to experience. The

development of this capacity is correlated with age and manifests itself in the construction of

narratives about personal experiences (Pasupathi & Mansour, 2006). In adolescence,

heterogeneous events are often seen as necessary fluctuations in the process of identity

development; they are indicative of growth, transition, and discovering ones place in the world.

These judgments reflect a level of autobiographical reasoning that has yet to achieve full

maturation. Because the adolescent years are characterized by change, uncertainty about the

future, and conflicting cultural messages, these perceptions will be expressed in the structure and

content of adolescent identity narratives. Adolescents are in the midst of assuming the

interpretive, self-critical stance that is required in order to make a stable commitment to beliefs,

ambitions, and roles that will embody a consistent personal identity. Therefore, they are at a

juncture in which they are neither able nor impelled to draw on past experiences to confirm their

temporal self continuity. Instead, adolescents are actively forming perceptions of themselves and

the world, which will later serve as central components of their autobiographical narratives.

By contrast, the narratives of older adults demonstrate more advanced forms of

autobiographical reasoning in the frequency and sophistication of their self-reflective processes.

Heterogeneous events are interpreted in terms of their connected, underlying themes, rather than

their temporal or contextual diversity. Years of self-appraisals and meaning-making have worked

to crystallize a perception of identity that is cogent, flexible, and continuous. As such, these

features of self continuity serve as the basic foundation from which experience flows. The

autobiographical narratives of middle- to late-adulthood reflect the concerns of Eriksons last

two stages of psychosocial development: generativity versus stagnation and ego integrity versus

despair. In the former, adults begin to review their lives in terms of their accomplishments,

contributions to society, and productivity. Generativity refers to the task of establishing and

guiding the next generation (Erikson, 1963), which is an undertaking that can only be

accomplished once individuals have made sense of their own identities in the broader context of

society. If individuals feel dissatisfied with themselves and the products of their life work, they

will remain stagnant, unable to reach out to others and promote the interests of successive


In Eriksons last stage of ego integrity versus despair, older adults slow their productivity

in retired life to reflect on their histories. Acts of remembrance, for these individuals, concern the

shape that life has takenwhat goals have or have not been accomplished, what has one learned

over time, what semantic and emotional themes have characterized the life span, what aspects of

experience have been most meaningful, and if one feels fulfilled by these developments. This is

the time when loose ends are tied up and the life span converges toward a coherent whole.

The truth of an autobiographical narrative, in its accordance with facts and reality, is

indeterminable. We know that memory is a process of reconstruction, with each remembered

event receiving elaboration through our own imagination and the conditions of the present

context. The autobiographical narratives that we rely on to communicate ourselves to others and

to interpret current situations are selectively constructed and deliberately retrieved. A meaningful

life history with explanatory power serves as a valuable representation of personal identity

because it is lucid and communicative. Self continuity, symbolized in narrative form, becomes a

concrete phenomenon in the sense that individuals possess the episodic evidence for its

existence. In their study on the health advantages of narrative writing, Pennebaker et al. (1999)

found a high correlation between physical and mental health and the simple exercise of writing

down ones experiences. Additionally, their findings indicated that these benefits were both

qualitatively and quantitatively equivalent to the effects of verbally recounting ones experiences

to others. In both forms of disclosure, we gain meaning and insight about ourselves through the

reflection, organization, and articulation of lived experience. The perception of self continuity is

bolstered by the process of unfolding that characterizes life and is further emphasized in

autobiographical narratives.

IV. Identity Continuity and the Role of Childhood Experiences

Because psychologists are attentive to possible relationships between formative psychic

junctures and long-term sequelae, psychodynamic theories of personality development ascribe

a great deal of significance to the early years of life. The experiences of early childhood have

been emphasized by a wide range of theorists as playing a pivotal role in shaping personality

structure, affect regulation, social adjustment, and other thought, feeling, and behavior patterns

in adulthood (see Westen, 1998). Advocates of infant determinism posit a causal link between

childhood experience and adult psychopathology, but extensive work in developmental,

cognitive, and social psychology, as well as research in behavior genetics and neuroscience,

have established that, while this relationship may be correlative, the collection of factors that

mold adult psychopathology is far too broad and eclectic to be limited to the formative years of

early childhood. In addition to infant attachment styles, genetic predispositions and heritability,

environmental factors, and cultural systems of meaning are a few of the myriad variables that can

have lasting effects on adult personality.

To accurately explain how psychological properties originate in childhood and linger on

in adult life, we must underscore the cumulative nature of this relationship. The psychology of

the young child is often a provisional arrangement, by virtue of a malleable constitution, but this

should not suggest that the events of early life do not carry weight for future development. The

capacity for change, according to Kagan (1998), is as essential to human development as it is

to the evolution of a new species. With this being said, The events of the opening years do

start an infant down a particular path, but it is a path with an extraordinarily large number of

intersections (p. 150).

The psychological characteristics of children are not guaranteed endurance, but these first

years of life would not be judged as formative if this potential were nonexistent. One of the

primary inquiries of developmental research that has yet to be fully understood is how gene-

environment interactions bring about individual differences in personality. Empirical studies on

siblings in shared environments have remained equivocalthe ways in which two children

respond to the same event are highly variable, which would suggest that personality depends less

on the environment and more on individual temperament and adaptibility. However, while the

specific, heritable genetic makeup of a child may predispose him/her to certain forms of

psychopathology, the activation of phenotypic behavior is determined by the interaction of the

genotype with the environment. These research scenarios are problematic in that causal links are

virtually impossible to ascertain. For example, if two children are impacted by the same

environmental pathogen, such as an emotionally erratic maternal figure, each may develop

opposite patterns of adaptation that alter the course of personality development. One child may

become inattentive, impulsive, and emotionally labile, while the other becomes dutiful,

overbearing, and perfectionistic. In attempting to interpret the polarity of these coping methods,

how does one determine whether these differences should be attributed primarily to genotypic

variance or to parenting styles? Regardless of whether these variables function in concurrence or

in succession, they are inextricable and must be analyzed as such. This research is further

complicated when we take into consideration additional circumstantial factors such as the other

parents behavior toward the capricious mother, or if another parent is even present in the family


Westen (1998) suggests that the complexity of this research arises from the fact that one

cannot assume a simple model of development, such as Experience x leads to trait y, from

childhood to adulthood. He provides four reasons for why models are inadequate in longitudinal

studies of personality development (p. 350). The first is that childhood experiences can have

delayed effects. For example, promiscuity, a common outcome of antecedent sexual abuse, does

not typically manifest itself until adolescence; second, trait y may have different behavioral

manifestations at different points in the life span, which makes it nearly impossible to gauge the

development of the same trait over time; third, as individuals take on a wide set of roles, the

expression of trait y may become differentiated and varied (e.g., passive versus active and verbal

versus physical expression); and fourth, many traits are better understood in the context of an

individuals broader personality structure and patterns. Certain early experiences may prompt a

child to become aggressive at age 6, but at age 21, this aggression could be projected inward and

engender a more depressive personality style.

Despite numerous caveats that emerge in the study of behavior genetics, other bodies of

research in developmental psychology have uncovered childhood variables that have significant

and reliable predictive power for adult psychopathology. Specifically, attachment research has

afforded a unique profusion of evidence to suggest a correlative link between parenting styles

and childrens subsequent patterns of attachment and social adjustment. Such consistent findings

would indicate that the outcomes of these early relationships are not primarily contingent on

heritable genetic factors, but rather on the childs rearing environment. Infants are born with

complete dependency on their caregivers, and the mothers rearing practices, which later evolve

into interactive patterns between the mother and infant, become internalized by the developing

child. The childs assimilation of this early relationship implicitly works to cultivate a set of

crucial expectations that can extend beyond the family environment for example, how

dangerous the world is; to what extent responsiveness, empathy, and care are assured; and

consequently, the extent to which the child can rely on the mother versus other people.

The expectations shaped by early interactions between children and their caregivers are

not immutable from this stage forward. For these expectations to become fully internalized, they

must be subsequently reinforced by similar experiences throughout maturation. However, if the

early life of the child is characterized by empathetic failures of the mother, the child may only

know how to behave toward others in ways that elicit and fulfill these expectations of neglect.

Indeed, Westen claims that if these patterns reflect repeated experiences or experiences that are

painful and conflictual and hence have engendered automatized affect-regulatory procedures to

cope with them, they are more likely to be resistant to change (p. 352). The childs experience

of the physical world is mediated through his/her relationship with the mother, and therefore

continuity in thought, feeling, and behavior patterns from childhood to adulthood goes beyond

fiction. The validity of these continuous processes and their childhood antecedents have been

empirically supported by substantial longitudinal data.

Main et al.s (2005) longitudinal study on attachment is an illustrative example of these

predictive patterns. Main and her colleagues found high predictability of attachment behavior

and representational processes in children at 1, 6, and 19 years of age. In the first phase of this

study, the researchers conducted the Strange Situation procedure to determine the level of

attachment security (or insecurity) between mothers and their 1-year-olds. The Strange Situation

method, developed by Mary Ainsworth and her colleagues in 1978, is one of the most widely

used and validated methods of assessing infants attachment styles in relation to their primary

caregivers. The procedure consists of eight episodes in an experimental room, each designed to

measure the infants level of attachment security through manipulating the proximity of the

attachment figure (the mother or primary caregiver) and observing the infants behavioral and

affective responses to these unfamiliar conditions. These episodes include: the presence of the

mother, the absence of the mother, the presence of a stranger (research assistant), the vocal

presence of the mother, the infant left alone, and a reunion of the mother and infant.

Secure infant responses are indicated by exploration prior to separation, signs of

missing the parent during separation, and immediate and active proximity-seeking behavior upon

the mothers return. In contrast, Insecure-Avoidant infants respond to the parents separation

with indications of indifference; they do not cry when left alone, but continue to explore the

room. On reunion, these infants avoid and ignore the parent, and express resistance to being

picked up or held. Avoidant attachment status, although insecure, is still characterized by

organized behavior. The less common D or disorganized/disoriented Strange Situation

behavior lacks any such patternbecause these infants behaviors are anomalous and may be

linked to constitutional factors and/or parental maltreatment, they cannot be categorized into a

prototype. However, some thematic examples of D attachment responses to the Strange

Situation include: a marked indication of fear when the parent is present, a display of

contradictory behaviors, and direct indices of disorganization, disorientation, and apprehension

in behavior, movement, and expression.

At the 6th-year follow-up, the researchers administered the Separation Anxiety Test

(SAT) to reassess levels attachment security in the children and to examine signals of developing

autonomy. The SAT consists of a series of images and questions about parental separation,

asking children what they would do if separation ever occurred. Secure responses at year 1

predicted secure-resourceful responses to the SAT, while the majority of insecure-avoidant

responses to the Strange Situation predicted insecure-inactive responses to the SAT (e.g., I

dont know, Nothing, and Run away). D infants in the Strange Situation were categorized

as D-Fearful in their SAT responses, indicated by their linguistic disorganization (e.g., yes-no-


Attachment at year 19 was assessed with the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), a scale

that measures security and autonomy through the coherence of the interview transcript. Secure

responses at ages 1 and 6 predicted secure-autonomous states of mind on the AAI. Not one of the

participants insecure in infacy was classified as secure at age 19. Adults who were judged

as insecure-avoidant at age 1 were often dismissive of attachment-related questions and

insisted on a lack of memory when given the AAI at age 19. D infant responses was predictive

of U or CC (unresolved and cannot classify) in their AAI transcripts.

Main and her colleagues found a strong correlation between scales of proximity seeking

in infancy and the coherence of transcripts on the AAI 18 years later. While the sample in this

study contained 42 participants and thus cannot be generalized to a population, these results

indicate a significant relationship between the security of infants attachment figures and

environments and later representations of stability, autonomy, and flexibility in adulthood. These

and similar research findings have repeatedly corroborated the leading theoretical works on

attachment and human development (reviews in Gold, 2011; Schneider, 1991).

Childhood marks the vulnerable initiation of long and complex processes of

psychological development, which are ideally crystallized into a coherent sense of self by

adulthood. Legions of internal, external, central, and peripheral factors interact to shape

trajectories of development e.g., cultural milieu, child rearing practices, object relations, social

status, intervening trauma, genetic endowment, sex and gender, temperament, siblings, and

education. The amalgamation of these cumulative developments is the source of our perceptions

of identity. We cannot sift through our histories to locate the exact precipitants, relationships,

and events that have molded specific elements of our identitiesany personal attribute is the

result of various forces working in tandem over an indeterminate stretch of time.

The stipulations of etiological and longitudinal developmental research prevent

psychologists from affirming any causal relationships between phenomenological trends of

childhood and resulting adult psychology. However, the manifestations of psychological and

behavioral continuity in clinical and experimental research are theoretically sensible and have

evidence-based support. Unlike autobiographical narratives, in which the individual reflects on

the past and ascribes meaning to the continuities that pervade certain episodic memories, the

study of continuity from a developmental perspective allows for the detection of continuous

thought and behavior patterns as they evolve over time, and thus are not subject to the cognitive

errors and affective-motivational processes that are inherent in subjective recollection.

Our examination of the origins and implications of self continuity began with a review

of William James thoughts on the consciousness of self, which was followed by a discussion

of contemporary critical stances toward the psychological theory of continuity. We continued

with four topical analyses from the perspectives of cognitive, evolutionary, narrative, and

developmental psychology. The following perspective will conclude our systematic explication

of the first tenet of this review: that the experience of a continuous self is the crux of personal


V. The Continuous Self in Social Interaction

I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.
Robert Bierstedt, 1974, p. 197.

Temporal continuity would not be experienced as tenable or cogent if such beliefs did not

receive social feedback (e.g. Mead, 1934; Stets & Burke, 2003). Although coherence and

continuity are fundamentally personal judgments, the physical and imagined presence of others

greatly influences how we construct and understand our self-perceptions. Indeed, from the social

psychological perspective, the existence of an I is predicated on the existence of a you or

an other, and accordingly, the development of self-knowledge is inseparable from the social

environments and interactions that have shaped our ideas about who we are.

Research in social identity, self-perception, and social evaluation frequently make

reference to George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) and Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929), who

respectively pioneered the school of thought known as symbolic interactionism and the

hypothesis of the looking glass self. These theories emphasize the self as a reflection of what

we perceive as others perceptions of us. Cooley (1902) described the looking glass self in terms

of its three principal components: The imagination of our appearance to the other person; the

imagination of his judgment of that appearance, and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or

mortification (p. 152). Self-perception, then, is not a product of the individual mind, but a

process charactered by reflexive interactions between an individual and a category of others.

Classified as social behaviorists, Cooley and Mead are in many ways the successors to

James functionalist approach to theories of the self, but their thoughts on the role of society in

relation to the self are distinct from those of their forefather. James described the tripartite

Empirical Self or Me as composed of a material self, a social self, and a spiritual self, each with

its own self-seeking behaviors and means of self-estimation. James considered social self-

seeking as our instinctive impulse to be recognized and admired by others, to pursue love, honor,

ambition, as well as to strive for the achievement of possible ideal selves; this, he believed, was

an objective drive of human nature. The Empirical Me has a propensity for objects of self-

fulfillment: the material self seeks acquisitions and personal adornment, while the spiritual self

pursues exemplary intellect and morality. However, James asserted that the constituents

Empirical Me were isolated from the internal refuge of I the place of sameness and

familiarity to which we retreat when our social, material, or spiritual selves fail to receive

validation from the outside world (see James, p. 321).

Cooley and Mead, by comparison, interpret the empirical self as essentially social in

nature. Whereas James attributes the continuity of I to individual perception and judgment of

the self over time, Mead argues that the sense of a integrated I is conveyed to the individual by

his/her community. In this view, self and identity emerge in the mind, while the mind develops

out of social interaction. Thus the self is a representation of the thoughts and behaviors of an

incorporative we a social structure based on patterns of social interaction (Mead, 1934;

Scheibe, 1995).

James gave primacy to individual, as did Freud in his prevailing theory of the self as an

isolated and inward entity. However, these ideas were eclipsed by the developing fields of

behavioral psychology, which discarded notions of internal life in favor of observable processes,

and social psychology, which deemed the relationship between the self and society as one of

mutual dependence. Symbolic interactionism, framing, impression formation, and role theory

were phenomena conducive to empirical study, which in turn could provide these theories with a

level of validity that early functionalism and psychoanalysis lacked.

When compared with the preceding psychological discourses in our review, we find

notable differences in the epistemology and methodology of the social psychological approach to

studies of self and identity. However, the underlying tenet of these fieldsthe human motivation

to perceive the self as continuousis equally recognized by social psychologists as an

influential force in individuals behavior, dialogue, and self-representations (e.g. Shrauger &

Schoeneman, 1979; Stets & Burke, 2003). Empirical studies of symbolic interactionism draw

attention to the implications of micro-level social interaction rather than to intrapsychic

processes, but their findings ultimately uncover the same incentive for personal continuity,

despite the markedly different means by which people form this belief in the social sphere.

James long-standing assumption that people have a relatively continuous and reliable

sense of who they are has been both reinforced and undermined in social psychological

literature. Evidence of cross-situational inconsistencies in social behavior have led investigators

to make assertions that self-conceptions are unstable and ephemeralin other words, situation-

dependent (e.g. Mischel & Peake, 1982; Mischel, 1968). Swann and Read (1980) have remarked

on the large quantity of studies that have demonstrated the apparent ease with which participants

in laboratory experiments modify their self-conceptions in response to social feedback. The

credibility of such findings, they argue, is weakened by growing evidence that self-conceptions

have much more endurance against change in naturalistic studies than in laboratory settings (cf.

Shrauger & Schoeneman, 1979).

The altered self-perceptions that manifest in reponse to experimentally manipulated

feedback imply that we are passive beings who watch in wonderment as [our] self-conceptions

are tossed about willy-nilly by the pressures that swirl around [us] (Swann & Read, 1981, p.

1127). However, the abundant and diverse literature that we have considered thus far in our

review suggests the opposite realityi.e., that we assume an active role in the search for

temporal continuity. We continually seek to bring our memories, behavior, and feelings into

congruence with our current self-perceptions, whether or not we are conscious of this effort.

In their review, Stets and Burke (2003) outline two major sociological approaches to the

study of self and identity. Both of these perspectives attest to processes of self-verification and

judge individuals as active agents in society. However, these positions differ in the way they

visualize society as a system of social relations. The situational approach sees the individual as a

social actor, an object among objects, in a state of flux. Society is defined as a tentative structure

that is in the process of being built by the individuals within it, who have the freedom to behave

and define situations in order to fit their personal identifications, which bidirectionally reinforces

the disorganization of society. This micro-level approach considers social interactions as

phenomena that can only be defined in specific terms of time, place, role dynamics, and co-

constructed meanings. The more contemporary structural approach looks at society from a

macro levelas a relatively stable structure that reflects the patterned regularities of large- and

small-scale social interactions that unfold within it. While both of these perspectives regard self-

verification as an human goal, the structural approach to self studies allows us to observe and

consider patterns of behavior over time, while the situational approach limits behavioral analysis

to particular incidents and categories of interaction. Neither of these approaches is less valid than

the other, but the structural approach to identity preservation in society is more pertinent to the

tenets of this review.

Swann and Read (1980) have proposed that individuals use their social interactions as

opportunies to verify and confirm their self-conceptions. In a series of three empirical

investigations, the researchers discerned three distinctive strategies of self-verification:

In Investigation I, participants were more likely to seek social feedback when they

believed that it would confirm their self-conceptions. In Investigation II, participants

elicited reactions from their interaction partners that confirmed their self-conceptions,

especially when they suspected that their partners appraisals might disconfirm their self-

conceptions. In Investigation III, participants preferentially recalled social feedback that

confirmed their self-conceptions (p. 351).

The results of this study indicate that people actively seek, elicit, and recall social

feedback that confirms their self-conceptions. The self-concept, as defined by Mead (1934), is

derived from the perceived reactions and evaluations of generalized others, rather than others

actual assessments of the individual. However, the desire for self-confirmatory feedback varies

in proportion to the individuals commitment to his/her self-conception. Data from a later study

conducted by Swann and Read (1981) suggests that individuals whose self-concepts are more

diffuse, poorly integrated, or less articulated do not have as strong of a propensity to acquire self-

confirmatory feedback. Although instances of truly diffuse self-conceptions are rare, this finding

seems reasonable: if individuals do not have precise and formulated understandings of who they

are, neither will they have detailed ideas about who they are not. Therefore, these individuals

may seek a highly inclusive range of social feedback in the attempt to understand themselves,

and would then be less likely to evade inconsistent social feedback than individuals who have

stable and coherent self-conceptions.

Just as individuals selectively and preferentially remember the past in a way that

conforms to their current beliefs and self-perceptions, so do they disclose and behave toward

others in a manner in which their focal attributes will be affirmatively evaluated (Shrauger,

1979). Situational variables become instrumental in contexts that warrant specific

representations of the self. The self-concept then becomes the regulator of individual behavior as

it organizes ones interpretation of the social environment (Markus & Nurius, 1986). Learned

expectations and affective displays, either normative or heuristic, are branded on situational

stimuli, so that when a perfectionist speaks to a scholar, she will promote a humble yet proficient

image of herself, and when a high school principal asks a self-defined deviant to pull his pants

up, the boy may scoff at the request and mutter, Youre not my mom!. We can augment and

diminish particular characteristics to suit present contextual concerns while still maintaining a

subjective experience of unity. However, we may feel insecure when we become aware of our

own internal contradictions, which can advance to severe anxiety if these discrepancies are

exposed to the public. It is for this reason that an integrated self-concept is vital to self


The aspects of personal identity that are assessed as salient by an individual and others

will receive added attention and scrutiny as such from both parties. It is unclear, however, if the

initial attribution of salience to a personal feature is made by the individual and is then

intensified in social interaction so that it may be authenticated, or if the personal feature is first

judged salient by others (e.g., Youre always so generous with your friends) and is then

assimilated into the individuals network of self-appraisals and subsequently fortified through

behavior. Social identity theorists would tend to insist on the latter, but regardless of the origins

of self-perceptions, social validation remains an essential component of the creation and

continuation of personal identity.

The first section of this analysis has addressed William James principle of personal

identity as a continuous aggregate of I. We inquired into this argument by assessing self

continuity as it is understood in five distinct fields of psychology. In this investigation, we have

ascertained the multifaceted purpose of the human perception of self continuity. The following

section of this review will attend to the contiguous matter of memory as the means by which we

cultivate and maintain the notion of personal identity as temporally continuous.

Personal Identity as Memory
If a man wakes up some fine day unable to recall any of his past experiences, so that he has to
learn his biography afresh, or if he only recalls the facts of it in a cold abstract way, as things that
he is sure once happened, or if, without this loss of memory, his bodily and spiritual habits all
change during the night, each organ giving a different tone, and the act of thought becoming aware
of itself in a different way, he feels and he says that he is a changed person (James, [1890/1950],
p. 336).

The realization of self continuity entails an inward search for resemblances between past

and present landscapes. The mental topography of a remembered past provides each of us with a

kind of personal knowledge that others histories fail to evoke. While perceived continuity is

essential to an integrated identity, memory is a criterion for this awareness and thus acts as the

mainspring of all that we deem I. We cannot judge likeness or distance between the self of the

past and the self of the present without memory as the mediator between these temporal

domains. Just as the perceptual recognition of our own bodies tells us that we still exist, the

subjectively remembered past illustrates that we still arethat I am still the inhibited girl at

family gatherings, that I still have a distaste for the color yellow, consistently bite my nails, and

prefer mint chocolate chip ice cream to other flavors. Others may reasonably perceive these

details as trivial, but I perceive them as my own and therefore as components of me. These

preferences, habits, and oddities of my past still carry weight in the present, as emblems of

continuity within a sea change.

In our brains, the enduring facets of personal identity to which we ascribe special value

are, most simply, patterns of synaptic transmission. Synapses are the connections between

neuronsthe channels through which information is stored and encoded. Our mental and

behavioral characteristics, whether congenital or acquired, are deposited in the brains synaptic

ledgers; the outcomes of nature versus nurture are merely two different means of achieving

synaptic interconnectivity within and between various neural systems (LeDoux, 2002). An

innate feature in all of the brains systems is plasticityi.e., the ability to modify in response to

experience. Without our synaptic capacity to change and maintain change, we would not be able

to learn, nor would we possess the fruits of learning: memory. Learning and memory processes

are our neurological continuitytheir continuous development hinges on the history of their

functioning. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux contends that, without memory, the self would

be an empty impoverished expression of our genetic constitution (p. 9). Experiments in

neuroscience and cognition have conveyed the powerful relationship between memory and the

self, particularly through demonstrating the tremendous implications for personal identity that

emerge when memory is lost, forgetten, or distorted (e.g., Schacter, 2003).

However, one should not misinterpret the far-reaching significance of memory to mean

that this system is the absolute overseer of personal identity. The relationship between memory

and the self is reciprocal and interdependent. We know from sections I, III, and V of this review

that recollection is not a passive activity; the self is an active agent in matters relating to personal

identity because we are the protagonists in our respective autobiographies. Our memories may

appear to be faithful and intact records of experience, but this verisimilitude is often the result of

imaginative reconstruction (Barlett, 1932; Schacter, 1996). Factors such as the motivation for

recall, expectations of reliability, the present context, how frequently the memory has been

invoked, and ones affective state at the moment of recall have an effect on how we perceive and

what we remember about the past.

Memory does not constitute a single process, but a diverse collection of neural activities,

all of which coincide to bring about the conscious recollective experience (Engel, 1999). In a

similar way to Engel, cognitive psychologist Ulric Neisser proposed that incoming data are

represented in memory as fragments of experience, which provide the foundation for

reconstructing a past event. Long-term memory comprises three major systems: semantic

memory contains our learned repertoire of factual and conceptual information, and procedural

memory represents our acquired habits and skills. The third system, which constitutes subjective

remembrance of discrete past experiences, was first distinguished by psychologist Endel Tulving

(1972) as our episodic memory, which, together with semantic memory, forms the declarative

(or explicit) memory systemthe assemblage of self-knowledge and memories that are

accessible through consciousness and communicable to others. The converse implicit memory

system is made up of procedural memory and experiences that cannot be willfully activated, but

unconsciously influence our perceptions, thoughts, and behavior.

Episodic memory is paramount to our discussion of self continuity, as it involves an

important and unique interplay between the rememberer and the remembered: The particular

state of consciousness that characterizes the experience of remembering includes the

rememberers belief that the memory is a more or less true replica of the original event, even if

only a fragmented and hazy one, as well as the belief that the event is part of his own past.

Remembering, for the remember, is mental time travel, a sort of reliving of something that

happened in the past (1983, p. 127). As rememberers, we free ourselves from the impositions of

time and space as we traverse across our histories to events that may be separated by years or

decades, but are preserved as meaningful representations of self-relevant experiences. Nigro and

Neisser (1983) have referred to this type of subjective retrospection as field memory, in which

past experiences are viewed from the eyes of the rememberer as the protagonist. They

distinguish the field perspective from that of the observer, who reflects on the lived past from a

detached, third-person perspective. The observer perspective is often exercised when one is

attempting to recall objective circumstances surrounding a past episode or to enforce a sense of

temporal distance, while field memory is motivated by a valenced trigger in the present context

that leads to the reexperiencing of an associated emotional event from the past. Field memories

are indicative of subjective temporal connections; we use the same perspective to reminisce on

these episodes as we did when they were originally experienced, and we attribute our present

feelings to these earlier scenes, thereby solidifying a meaningful link between past and present.

Semantic memorythe elaborate network of concepts, associations, and facts that frame

our knowledge of the worldshapes what we select and encode as meaningful representations

of experience. Regardless of whether one consciously attempts to utilize the past through finding

its associations with present circumstances, our implicit memory system affords special salience

to incoming information that is qualitatively similar to past perceptions and experiences

(Bornstein, 1999; Kandel, 2006; Jacoby et al., 1985). These learned patterns work to form a

template of continuous qualities that we associate with our episodic memories, so that any one

story may encapsulate the elements that are diffused throughout all personal experience.

Patterns of neural interconnectivitydeveloped, strengthened, and modified through

experience and motivational mechanismsyield patterns in thought, behavior, and emotion that

we use to characterize ourselves. However, the connections we perceive between different times,

places, and experiences are not universal. When one sees vestiges of the self in remembrance of

things past, are these merely products of a motivated imagination? Can fragments of episodic

memory promote continuity in the same way as procedural and semantic memory, or must the

individual play a more active role in binding these artifacts to the current self? In Imaginary

Homelands (1992), Salman Rushdie considers memory as analogous to a broken mirror,

declaring that:

Human beings do not perceive things whole; we are not gods but wounded creatures, cracked
lenses, capable only of fractured perceptions. Partial beings, in all the sense of that phrase.
Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles,
chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved; perhaps it is because
our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so
fiercely, even to the death (p. 12).

Rushdie lays bare the precarious constitution from which we build continuous meaning.

The shards of the past that we locate in memory are irresolute entities that we are compelled to

interpret, for why would they persist in memory if they did not have a bearing on who we are? It

is through these means that the trivial becomes symbolic, the mundane becomes potent, and the

past becomes an illustrative web for the present and the future.

Think of the episode of the madeleine in Marcel Prousts Remembrance of Things Past

(1913). In this example of involuntary memory, the narrator visits his mother and sits down for

tea and pastries, known as petites madeleines. He dips the madeleine into the tea, brings it to his

lips, and is overcome with a feeling of warmth, familiarity, and joy. His sensory faculties are

struck with a sensation that seems to embody his total person. His mind is infused with an aura

of nostalgia as a shred of his past migrates from the realm of the lost to that of the

recovered: The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at

Combray . . . when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my aunt Lonie used to

give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane (p. 48). The taste of the madeleine

brings with it a sense of temporal continuityit is the same madeleine now as it was then, and

accordingly, the narrator of the past and the narrator of the present become ontologically united

in a transient space that feels timeless. James affirms that memory requires more than mere

dating of a fact in the past. It must be dated in my past. In other words, I must think that I directly

experienced its occurrence (p. 650). The madeleine triggers a backward motion through time, to

a specific object in a specific place inhabited by a specific person. However, these past

actualities are only given substance when the narrator is able to reexperience them in the present;

he first recognizes the objective reality of this place from his past, but once he inserts himself

within it, the features of the scene become animated. This sliver of the past, once occupied by

dormant ghosts, is now enshrined as a remnant of enduring selfhood.

The evocative power of recollection is seldom experienced but always recognized. Each

of us can note occasions in which some stimulus has stirred within us a nostalgic remembrance

of halcyon days. The meanings that we derive from such experiences are variable, but the

phenomenon of nostalgiaa concomitant sense of now and thenis universal. Modern

neuroscience can tell us why and how the episode of the madeleine transpired as it did, but the

broader question of why we remember what we remember entails us to start at the beginning of

the memory processa moment in timeand work our way toward its end resultthe

recollective experience.

I. Memory Taking Shape:

Encoding and Retrieving the Past and the Present

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is
what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the
possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason,
our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing (Buuel, 1984, p. 5)

The encoding process is a method of reshaping something a person sees, hears, thinks, or

feels into an explicit memory. We remember only what we have encoded, and what we encode

depends on who we are (Schacter, 1996). Therefore, our past experience, motivation, and

knowlege all have an impact on the types of information that we retain. It is for this reason that

the same event can be recalled by two people in vastly divergent ways, depending on the depth

of encoding at the time of the event. Neuroimaging studies have located the neural substrates that

are activated (i.e., increase in blood flow) during encoding operations. For example, positron

emission tomography (PET) scanning experiments have found differences in region and level of

activation for shallow encoding tasks versus deep encoding tasks (Kapur et al., 1994). Synaptic

transmission in the frontal and medial temporal lobes are associated with elaborative encoding

a thorough process of integrating new information with existing semantic memory.

A valuable method of facilitating elaborative encoding is the use of mnemonic devices, in

which the individual configures incoming information in meaningful ways that will aid future

recall. For example, a piano teacher may suggest that his student memorize the notes of the bass

clef by remembering All Cows Eat Grass (the notes A-C-E-G on the spaces on the staff)

and Good Boys Eat Fudge Always for the lines on the staff (the notes G-B-E-F-A). These

kinds of semantic associations help people conceptualize strings of information that do not have

an inherently memorable pattern. Similarly, visual imagery mnemonicsforming an image of

the information and connecting it to a mental location or an affective stateare elaborative

encoding processes that contribute to the lucidity and ease of recollection and work to cultivate a

strand of semantic self-knowledge that weaves memories together.

The changes in neural connectivity that result from encoding an experience produce a

representation of a memory in the brain. These representations, known in the field of

neuroscience as engrams, have been eloquently defined by psychologist Daniel Schacter (1996)

as follows:

The brain records an event by strengthening the connections between groups of neurons that
participate in encoding the experience. A typical incident in our everyday lives consists of
numerous sights, sounds, actions, and words. Different areas of the brain analyze these varied
aspects of an event. As a result, neurons in the different regions become more strongly connected
to one another. The new pattern of connections constitutes the brains record of the event: the
engram . . . These patterns of connections have the potential to enter awareness, to contribute
to explicit remembering under the right circumstances, but at any one instant most of them lie
dormant (pp. 58-59).
Rich and elaborate encoding processes yield a wide range of retrieval cues, increasing the

chances of longterm explicit memory retrieval. Superficial encoding of an event produces very

few cues for retrieval, which may leave these memories dormant in the brain. The vivid and

stirring contextual details in the episode of the madeleine suggest prior elaborative encoding, but

the narrator and reader realize the fragility of this recollection, as it was completely dependent on

a serendipitous reinstatement of the appropriate retrieval cues. The encoding process is virtually

responsible for what we remember, but extensive encoding does not ensure that our memories

will be accessible to deliberate and total recall. Retrieval is the second constituent process

essential to explicit memory. The memories that we weave into our personal autobiographies are

made up of activated and strengthened connections between groups of neurons associated with

the engram and retrieval cues; although they may not be recalled voluntarily, there is a wide

latticework of associations that allow them to be recalled with frequency and ease.

Memory constitutes the dual effects of the cue and the engram, but this interaction is not a

fixed operation that evokes the same image across multiple retrievals. As Neissers research on

field and observer memory has shown, the way we remember the past has a considerable

influence on what we remember about itthe adoption of an observer perspective would

indicate that our thoughts about the memorys meaning for the self have changed. Retrieval

processes involved in subjective memory shape our perceptions of the contextual details, the

emotional tone, and the role of the self in an episode from the past, which lead us to modify our

interpretations of a memory at each instance of recollection. Thus, the properties of the retrieval

cue and the retrieval environment initiate a process of memory reconstruction that is

embellished, imagined, and adjusted to suit present attitudes and knowledge. The way an event is

recalled and communicated to ones therapist will differ from ones recollection of the same

event in a court room; the truth of a memory, the meaning it conveys, and the definitions and

implications of its accuracy shift according to their relevance in the context of retrieval (Engel,


The important dynamic between encoding and retrieval processes was demonstrated in a

series of famous experiments conducted by Tulving and Thompson (1973) on the priming,

encoding, and retrieval of word pairs. Their results led them to the encoding specificity principle:

the idea that the environment and manner in which we encode an event will determine its

retrieval cues for later recall. For example, studies on mood-congruent memory have confirmed

that an individuals positive or negative affective state allows for easier and more accurate

retrieval of memories that correspond with that present mood (Rusting, 1999; Walker, et al.,

2009). This phenomenon fits into the category of state-dependent retrieval, whereby an

individuals state at the time of encoding must be reinstated at the time of attempted recall for

optimum memory retention. When individuals encode information while under the influence of

drugs or alcohol, their ability to recall this information will be most favorable in similar

instances of intoxication

To remember an event with accuracy and detail, we rely on our source memory: the

precise knowledge of the time and setting in which the event occurred. Semantic memory often

involves knowing without remembering; we know that we have learned certain information,

but are unable to determine the time and location of its initial encoding. Episodic memory, on the

other hand, is sustained and defined entirely by source memory. The hippocampus is essential to

the encoding, consolidation, and retrieval of episodic memories. Located deep within the medial

temporal lobe, the hippocampus is involved in the detection of novel events, places, and stimuli

during encoding processes. Thus, contextual details and spatial configurations of an episodic

memory depend largely on the workings of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is also

influential in converting short-term memory to long-term memorya process known as long-

term potentiation, which develops through mechanisms of prolonged synaptic plasticity and

transmission (Kandel, 2006). This hippocampal process marks semantic features among different

episodes so that they are identified and grouped in our memory through associative links.

The importance of the hippocampus is exemplified the case of HMa well-known case

study in neuroscience and cognitive psychology (review in Corkin, 1984). In a surgery

undertaken to control his epilepsy, two-thirds of HMs hippocampus, parahippocampal gyrus,

and amygdala were removed from his medial temporal lobes. After the procedure, the twenty-

seven-year-old HM began to suffer from anterograde amnesia: his working memory and

procedural memory remained intact, but he could not commit new episodes to memory. HM also

experienced moderate retrograde amnesia: although he recall many of his childhood experiences,

HM could not remember the events leading up to his surgery, nor many episodes that had

occurred in the last decade of his life. HMs recollection of childhood events suggested that the

engrams for such memories had become consolidated in the extensive cortical networks outside

the medial temporal region that subserve long-term storage (Schacter, 1996). However, the

damage caused to HMs medial temporal structures prevented him from consolidating any new

information to long-term memory. Priming experiments showed that HM could acquire implicit

memory, but the damaged neural structures underlying declarative knowledge inhibited HMs

ability to remember how he knew what he knew. His episodic and semantic memory had been


The autobiographical events that linger in our memory possess a potent affective valence,

first activated at the time of the event, which is encoded and receives prolonged strengthening

over time. While the spatial and temporal details of episodic memory are supported by the

hippocampus, the emotional qualities of subjective remembrance originate in its neighboring

brain structurethe amygdala. The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped formation that is

activated at the onset of emotional arousal and receives sensory input from surrounding brain

structures. The amygdala learns and modulates the emotional content of events, so that the same

emotionally-charged stimuli, if encountered again, will implicitly prompt the associated

behavioral and affective responses. The episodic memories that we interpret as self-revealing

and momentous are often vividly remembered and highly emotivethe result of enriched

amygdala-hippocampal interactions.

The synergy between the amygdala and hippocampus supports the enhancement of

episodic memory for emotionally significant events (Anderson et al., 2006). In turn, greater

recollection for emotional events causes them to be more richly experienced in memory (Todd &

Anderson, 2009). While the amygdala is responsible for processing and strengthening the

general affective tone of the original event and moderating the emotional response to its

subsequent retrievals (i.e., emotional conditioning), the hippocampus records the contextual

details and mnemonic features that correspond with this global emotional representation,

building a localized neural substrate for emotional behavior that can be identified by the

individual and then expressed as declarative knowledge. Owing to this process, physiological

responses to emotional stimuli are turned into associated perceptions, thoughts, and memories

(Dalgleish, 2004).

While the personal memories that we seek, discuss, and interpret are central to our

identity coherence, the implicit memory system also has a formative influence on our self-

appraisals, although we are generally unconscious of its functioning. Unexplained fears,

attractions, motivations, and dislikes have just as much, if not more control over our daily lives

as they would if we could place their origins. Without our awareness, implicit memories and

perceptions from the past steer cognition, affect, and behavior in the present (Bornstein, 1999).

Kihlstrom et al. (1992) suggest that implicit memory is demonstrated by any change in

experience, thought, or action that is attributable to some past experience, even in the absence of

conscious recollection of that event (p.21). The cognitive processes that are activated in

response to these unconscious perceptions and memories sustain temporal continuity without

individual involvement. The bountiful self-knowledge that we seem to glean from our direct

phenomenal experience is a mere particle of resultant consciousness from an implicit world of

personhood that has accrued from years of past experience. Whether engaged in current

happenings or in reminiscence, individuals unconsciously decipher, assimilate, and utilize the

object of their attention in ways that will reconcile its congruence with the past or the present,

respectively (Wilson & Ross, 2002).

The mechanisms underlying this temporal binding of selves create and fortify our

perceptions of an integrated identity, primarily through the means of adaptive distortions and

errors of cognition. The following section will give insight into these somewhat illusory

elements of self continuity, and thereafter our review will conclude with a rumination on the

matters of this discourse that await future exploration.

II. The Illusion of Self Continuity:

Mechanisms of Memory Distortion

The sense of a meaningful continuity is . . . as true as it is necessary. We need the feeling

of order and continuity so as to cope with the unending onslaught of external and internal
experiences. We therefore have to impose our order on the flux and, if one cannot grasp
continuity, make it up in some fashion ourselves. The sureness of I was is a necessary
component of the sureness of I am (Frederick Wyatt, 1963, p. 319).

While engaging in personal or collective recollection, we are provided with the unique

capacity to assess how we believe we have changed or remained consistent over time. One

phenomenon that allows us to gauge the nature of these transformations is the experience of

nostalgia, such as we saw in Prousts episode of the madeleine. Nostalgic memoryof a time,

place, person, or some other reliccan be pertinent to self continuity in one of two ways: either

the remembrance of things past manifests as a vestigial pang of loss in the individual, or the act

of remembrance affords the individual with a warmth for experiences that have survived by way

of memory. The former perspective suggests a discrepancy between temporal selves, while the

latter adopts a sense of temporal affinity. It is not the particularities of the memory that

determine our judgments of subjective distance, but rather the perspective we take toward the

memory when looking at the relationship between who we were and who we are.

An instance of recollection occurs in reaction to a preceding force, whether it is a cue

from ones environment or a motivated search for a self-affirming past event. When a retrieval is

triggered and a memory travels into consciousness, one may experience unexpected shifts in

mood, affect, judgment, or perspective (see Bornstein, 1999; Leboe & Ansons, 2006; Rusting,

1999). These abrupt fluctuations can lead one to assume that the content of the memory is

responsible for the emotional shift, but in many cases, it is the individuals implicit motivation at

the moment of recall that determines his/her reaction to the memory.

Wilson and Ross (2003) argue that there is a two-step process involved in the motivated

recollection of autobiographical memories:

Because present attributes and feelings are frequently more accessible than past ones, individuals
start with current self-appraisals, such as How do I feel about X today. Next, people invoke
implicit theories about the stability of their own attributes and feelings to construct a past that is
similar to or different from the present (p. 138).

This second step in the reconstruction of autobiographical memories typically

incorporates a consistency bias, in which one implicitly reshapes the past to make it consistent

with present thoughts, feelings, and beliefs (Schacter, 2003). We know that continuity cannot

exist without change; progressions in time, space, age, and development are the products of

continual successions of alterations. However, because these movements are often slight and

occur in sequence, we perceive these changes as continuous. This is neither an illusion nor a lie,

but rather the practical effects of human perception. Recollections of the past are fabricated and

in some cases inaccurate, depending on the individuals motives for retrieval, but these cognitive

phenomena should not be judged as active attempts to alter or erase past realities. Instead, ones

implicit motivation should be viewed as a potentially adaptive force; if an individual perceives

past attitudes and traits as harmonious with current ones, this reduces cognitive dissonance and

brings a level of self-prediction to an otherwise incongruous self.

Wilson and Ross note that the motivation for self-enhancement necessitates a perception

of change over time: By depreciating their former satisfaction levels, individuals create the

illusion of improvement even in the face of actual decline (p. 139). For many people, recent

selves are discerned as more germane and familiar than selves of a distant past, which many

sometimes feel like strangers (van der Kolk et al., 1991; Bell, 1996). This motivation for

distance can be accomplished by taking on the impartial, observer perspective and may serve as

a temporary coping mechanism for those who have experienced trauma in their pasts. By

dissociating the past self from the current self, individuals mitigate threats to identity through

facilitating spatiotemporal distancethey may feel as though their lives have followed a

trajectory of continual improvement due to or in spite of certain disruptions. In these

manipulations of subjective familiarity and distance, changes between the past and present can

either be justified (e.g., X made me who I am today) or estranged (e.g., That was the old me,

or When X happened, I wasnt myself). Wilson and Ross emphasize that these acts of

remembering attend to personal benefit, rather than veracity. They are active functions of

identity maintenance; the goal is not to recapture the truth of a past event, but to revise past and

present appraisals (although the two are not mutually exclusive). The bi-directional link between

memory and personal identity is demonstrated herecurrent self views influence recollection,

but are also influenced by what and how we remember.

The reservoir of evocative autobiographical episodes that we look back on as valuable

representations of personal identity are generally augmented in importance as a result of their

perceptual fluencya term used to describe the speed and ease with which stimuli are

cognitively processed. Stimuli with high fluency will be quickly recognized, conveying to the

individual a feeling of familiarity. The subsequent perception is that this stimulus belongs to

some aspect of the individuals past. Even stimuli that elicit ambiguous feelings of familiarity

will prompt a controlled search for a memory with an episodic representation of the stimulus, so

that one may assuage these feelings of uncertainty (Jacoby et al., 1985). Once a corresponding

recollection rushes into consciousness, a burst of positive affect will accompany the memory as

the result of successful recall (Leboe & Ansons, 2006).

Self continuity is recognized in that which seems familiar, and the mechanism of fluency

is often the catalyst for these perceptions. For example, Reber et al.s (2004) research on

perceptual fluency and judgments of aesthetic beauty found that stimuli with high processing

capability (i.e., stimuli that are easily processed in the brain) have an intrinsic hedonic marking,

which naturally elicit perceptions of familiarity and evaluative judgments of pleasantness and

attraction. It is not, however, the perceptual or processing fluency that facilitates these judgments

and preferences, since fluency is experienced without awareness. Instead, the positive affective

response to these implicit cognitive processes is what the individual consciously experiences and

mistakenly attributes to the properties of the object itself.

In this process, the perceived spark of familiarity in a fluent object or experience will

prompt the conscious self, the active rememberer, to take up a heuristic search for an episode

that conforms to the feelings induced by the stimulus and satisfies current self-

representations: When we perceive an event, we activate fragments of pre-existing knowledge

stored in memory; when we attend to the event, the corresponding mental representation

becomes part of our working memory (Kihlstrom, 1992, pp. 41-42). With the self as an

unconscious modulator, this recreation of memory parallels Wilson and Ross proposition that

implicit perceptions of spatiotemporal orientation (closeness to or distance from the past) have a

bidirectional link with motivated self-appraisals of either continuity or change over time.

Memorythe system that facilitates temporal order in perceptions of the self through the

interactive effects of associated brain processeshas proven to be the crux of all matters relating

to personal identity. If an individual had no conception of his or her own temporality, then the

question of Who am I? would garner answers empty of reason, perspicuity, and tenability.

The idea that humans could live with such incoherent systems of self-understanding is by no

means hypothetical or far-fetched, although it may be difficult for many of us to comprehend.

In the case of HM, a surgery that resulted in impaired memory function was the direct cause for

what one may consider a loss or diminution of the self. While memory disorders brought on by

age, genetic mutation, and brain injury are relatively tangible strings of causality, the memory

impairments that survive as by-products of traumatic phenomena such as childhood sexual abuse

and cultural dislocation have proven to be equally potent determinants of identity disintegration,

yet remain more oblique in their etiology.

Fractures and Obstructions
in the Temporally Continuous Self

Any thorough discussion of identity continuity will tacitly inspire attention to its

phenomenological counterpart: identity fragmentation. The roots of that which obstructs the

continuity of consciousness are of great import in this review: just as the examination of memory

loss, distortion, and damage uncovers the profound value of an intact memory system, so does

the consideration of identity pathology and fragmentation attest to the far-reaching significance

of the perception of self continuity (e.g., Apfelbaum, 2000; Davoine & Gaudilliere, 2004;

Donahue et al., 1993; Holman & Silver, 1998; Kihlstrom et al., 1994; Kohut, 1978; Silverstein,


To some extent, individuals can solidify their continuity through overdeterminismwe

may deduce that X occurred as a direct result of how we were reared as children, our

enculturation and acquisition of knowledge, our unique genetic endowment, and a host of other

biographical events that preceded and supposedly caused X. We impose order on our lives by

situating meaningful experiences within a spatial and temporal framework of cause and effect,

creating a mental landscape of fluidity in thought, feeling, and behavior. We reify and shelter

these sacred spaces from the forces of fragmentation so that we may feel as though they are

ensured against potential loss. However, the unbroken experience of I is tenable only to the

extent that the individual truly perceives it as such. Indeed, as William James reminds us, The

past and present selves compared are the same just so far as they are the same, and no farther

(p. 334). It must be noted, however, that the individual is the arbiter of these ties between the

past and the present, and thus the truth of continuity, the truth of the past, and the truth of

personal identity can only exist as subjective realities, forever vulnerable to decay and


The temporally continuous self becomes a matter of significance to the individual only

when the concept descends from its theoretical sphere and immerses itself in the underpinnings

of daily praxis. As a matter of course, the acknowledged existence of self continuity serves to

concretize its inverted form: the discontinuous or fragmented self. Implicit memory, habit, or

what may otherwise be known as pre-reflective self-awareness provide all humans with an

unconscious, foundational continuity, regardless of whether one consciously identifies with the

postmodern striving for multiplicity (Frie, 2011). Conversely, individuals who profess their own

consistency undoubtedly recognize the profusion of vicissitudes that have the potential to

challenge, modify, and demolish their experience of continuity. Cases of such identity

dissolution occur most notably in circumstances of severe trauma, when perceptions of self,

time, and consequently memory, are altered as unforeseen forces begin to subvert ones previous

experience of reality.

In the attempt to uncover the nature of the relationship between traumatic experiences and

identity fragmentation, the investigators initial task is to forgo the blanket assumption of

generalizability across individuals responses to the same or similar categories of trauma.

Although the psychological sequelae of trauma are predictable, with many common symptoms

across populations of victims (Herman, 1992), there are many factors, independent of the

traumatic experience itself, that can trigger innumerable permutations in individual pathology.

For victims, the initial and ongoing impacts of trauma are influenced by complex negotiations

between private understandings of and public discourse on the nature of the event, which in turn

affect the victims perceptions of the experience and its implications for personal identity.

Considerations that are ancillary to the traumatic event, such as contextual variables (e.g.,

socially normative behavior, gender role constructs, the location of the event, the presence of

other victims and/or perpetrators), dispositional variables and diathesis, antecedent trauma and

mental health, and the level of post-trauma psychological support, shape victims responses to

and mechanisms of coping with their trauma (e.g., Barlow & Freyd, 1999; Holman & Silver,

1998; Kihlstrom et al., 1994).

While active suppression or denial of the traumatic experience and its psychological

outcomes can serve as coping strategies for victims attempting to function in the present,

research has shown that these methods of adaptation may fragment the individuals memory of

the event, disrupt the temporal ordering and sequencing of the event, undermine the individuals

ability to make sense of the experience, and thus prolong his or her search for meaning (Holman

& Silver, 1998). By cultivating a stance of temporal dissociation between the self before the

trauma and the self after the trauma, victimized individuals nurture a severance of what may

have once been an integrated narrative between the past, present, and future. These altered

perceptions of time in turn influence the cognitive processes that normally work to connect

temporal episodes together, and as a result, traumatized individuals unwittingly perpetuate the

negative effects of the event by constricting the reflective process that will restore the capacity to

assimilate personal memories.

The attempt to establish common features among diverse forms of trauma can be either

advantageous or futile, depending on the nature of ones inquiry. For the purposes of this review,

there is an inclusive component of traumatic phenomena that is of especial interest: common to

all forms of traumaindividual or collective, chronic or acute, aberrant or customaryis the

challenge that is posed to peoples understandings of self:

Traumatic events call into question basic human relationships. They breach the attachments of
family, friendship, love, and community. They shatter the construction of the self that is formed
and sustained in relation to others. They undermine the belief systems that give meaning to human
experience. They violate the victims faith in a natural or divine order and cast the victim into a

state of existential crisis (Herman, 1992, p. 51).
The complex structures of continuity that humans build for themselves over the life

spanthrough systems of interaction, belief, order, trust, faith, control, autonomyare the

principal casualties of traumatic phenomena. Over time or in an instant, the representations of an

individuals history can transform from a reservoir of meaningful connections to an incoherent

heap of fragments, clusters of chimeras, tokens of emptinessthe shadowy remains of an

existence that feels unfamiliar. Perceptions of internal and external coherence and continuity can

erode in the wake of traumaand from this devastating reality emerges the ultimate inquiry of

our review: the twofold matter of how personal identity is wounded by trauma, and how these

wounds may be stitched and reintegrated into the fabric of temporal continuity.

I. Early Trauma and Disorders of the Self

Section I.IV of this review addressed the role of early childhood experiences on

subsequent identity development. While findings from longitudinal developmental research have

discredited theories of infant determinism, many studies have continually attested to the strong

correlative link between the quality of childrens early attachment relationships and rearing

environments and their psychological adjustment as adults (e.g., Ainsworth, 1978; Main et al.,

2005; Kohut & Wolf, 1978; Westen, 1999). The literature reviewed in section I. IV focused on

the conditions in early life that are crucial to a childs development of a secure, autonomous

sense of self. By contrast, this section will attend to two types of identity pathology that often

have their roots in early childhood trauma: Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and Borderline

Personality Disorder (BPD). These disorders are characterized by severe discontinuities in

thought, feeling, and behavior, as well as varying levels of incoherence in the experience of

personal identity.

As a symptom associated with traumatic experiences, altered perceptions of temporal

continuity are by no means limited to these two disorders, but a comprehensive analysis of long-

term correlates of trauma is outside the scope of this review.2 DID and BPD have been selected

for their relevance and illustrative power in the comparison between continuity and

fragmentation. The celebration of freedom, fragments, and boundlessness that the

postmodernists have described is markedly absent from the experience of those living with

dissociative identity disorder and borderline personality disorder. Instead, the fundamental

experience of these disorders consists of an inner world of emptiness, deficiency, and

disconnection, with segments of a self that are extremely arduous to integrate.

Dissociative Identity Disorder

Dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder (MPD),

is a syndrome in which an individual appears to present two or more different personalities,

alternating in control over experience, thought, and action (Kihlstrom et al., 1994). While

dissociative identity disorder is rare, instances of transient, normative dissociative experiences in

everyday life are relatively common. When experiencing this latter form of dissociation,

individuals betray symptoms not qualitatively different from those of pathological dissociation,

but lack the trauma-based etiology that characterizes severe DID (Barlow & Freyd, 2009). Thus,

in the diagnosis of this disorder, the distinction between normal and abnormal personality is

measured by quantitative differences in the frequency, extent, or intensity of dissociative

2 See, for example, Browne & Finkelhor (1986) and Polusny & Follete (1995) for thorough literature reviews on the
short- and long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse.

symptoms displayed (Kihlstrom et al., 1994).

Biological and environmental factors have been studied in relation to dissociative

psychopathology, and while certain dispositional variables (e.g., hypnotizability, absorption,

fantasy proneness) have shown modest connections with dissociative tendencies, the underlying

mechanisms of these disorders remain equivocal. What studies have consistently observed is that

severe dissociative disorders are almost always the result of childhood trauma (e.g., Barlow &

Freyd, 1999; Herman, 1992; van der Hart et al., 2004).

The first explanation of dissociation was presented by Janet (1889, 1907) in his

theoretical accounts of hysteria:

Janet analyzed mental life into a large number of content-specific elementary structures, called
psychological automatisms, which combine perception and action. Ordinarily, the individuals
repertoire of psychological automatisms is bound together into a single, unified stream of
consciousness. But in periods of stress a particular automatism, or set of related structures, could
be split off from the rest, continuing to function but isolated from conscious awareness and
voluntary control. Thus, dissociated psychological automatisms continued to influence experience,
thought, and action but did so subconsciously, as hysterical accidents. This condition was labelled
desaggregation (in English, dissociation) (Kihlstrom et al., 1994, p. 117).

Thus, as a defense against overwhelming experiences of stress, individuals reflexively

dissociate or split their consciousness into sections as a means of sheltering themselves from

the effects of the trauma. This immediate adaptation to stress is often reinforced through

subsequent dissociative responses to similar stimuli. As a result, the individuals cognitive

processes are divided into rigid categories, each continuing to survive as a discrete alter that is

activated as a reflexive response to appropriate conditions of arousal.

Because they occur at a time when the brain is still developing, early experiences of

trauma make victimized children particularly susceptible to severe dissociative identity disorder.

It is through healthy relationships with their caregivers that infants learn to regulate their arousal:

attachment security, empathetic response, and stable rearing environments will be reflected in an

infants internal working models (IWMs), which serve as representations of personal safety, not

only in relation to the infants primary caregiver, but in relation to the outside world. When

abusive caregivers display sudden and extreme shifts in affect and behavior toward their infants,

they actively induce dysregulated emotional arousal without repair capabilities, which can cause

irreparable damage to childrens developing brains (Barlow & Freyd, 1999). Furthermore,

because children have yet to develop the language skills necessary to articulate their thoughts

and feelings, their memories of traumatic and other emotionally-laden experiences, if they

become accessible to consciousness, exist only as sensory fragmentswithout a narrative form,

without a spatial or temporal context, and without the presence of an I (van der Hart et al.,


However, in the context of childhood trauma, we must take into consideration the fact

that infants are entirely dependent upon their primary caregivers for survival. Freyds (1996)

betrayal trauma theory (BTT) addresses the logic of dissociation in face of childhood abuse: on

one hand, the infants physical needs of food and warmth and emotional needs of love and care

necessitate attachment to the caregiver; on the other hand, like other social primates, humans

have a strong motivation to avoid being cheated or betrayed. The most adaptive responses to

such instances of betrayal would be either to confront the perpetrator or withdraw from further

contact. Freyd emphasizes that, when a young child is abused by a parent or caregiver, these two

needs come into direct conflict. Whereas an independent adult can retreat from a cheater or

betrayer and exist autonomously, the infant cannot continue to exist without his or her abuser,

and thus the maintenance of the attachment relationship is essential. As Freyd writes:

In this situation, it is more adaptive to not know about the trauma that is occurring . . . The more
important the relationship, the stronger the motivation to preserve it. Thus, abuse by a parent
or other trusted caregiver is more likely to lead to amnesia and/or dissociation than is abuse by
a stranger. Dissociation is therefore conceptualized as an adaptive survival response to a bad
situation. Simultaneously, it may also be a maladaptive deficit in information processing that can

make future revictimization more likely (Barlow & Freyd, 1999, p. 100).

The adaptations that infants and young children make in response to traumatization are

necessary for survival, but represent the initial splinters of the self-concept, which almost always

deepen and spread over time. The integration process for adults with DID, while adaptive and

restorative, entails a painful, self-threatening, and unpredictable journey of recovering the past,

reliving the past, making sense of the past, and integrating the past. The attempt to find solace in

a past that was and is remembered as starkly unsafe, is the ultimate therapeutic goal, as well as

the biggest challenge, for those whose selves have split.

Psychotraumatologist Onno van der Hart and his colleagues at Utrecht University have

published extensive clinical research on the origins, diagnosis, and treatment of trauma-related

disorders, and have made significant strides in our understanding of the effects of trauma on

memory. In a study on memory fragmentation in dissociative identity disorder, van der Hart et

al. (2004) examined the quality of self-reported memories of traumatic experiences in 30 women

with DID and compared them with their memories of non-traumatic, but emotionally significant,

life experiences. While many retrospective studies have systematically investigated traumatic

memory retrieval in patients with DID, this study was the first to implement the same criteria for

non-traumatic memory retrieval in individuals with DID. In this way, the researchers were able

to ascertain the ongoing effects of trauma on memory processes, even when trauma is no longer


All 30 participants in this study reported a history of either childhood sexual abuse,

childhood physical abuse, or both types of abuse. The mean age at which childhood sexual abuse

reportedly started was 3.6 years with an average duration of 10.25 years, and the mean age at

which childhood physical abuse started was 5.1 years with an average duration of 12.5 years.

Only two (6.6%) participants reported that they had told someone about their abuse during


When asked about amnesia for their traumatic events, twenty-seven out of thirty

participants reported having been unable to recall the index traumatic event for a substantial

period of time, even if someone had asked them about it directly. The reactivating stimuli for the

recall of the traumatic experience included: therapy (N=12), television (N=8), a sensation such

as tasting certain foods, the smell of sweat, seeing ones own hands move, sexual sensations, etc.

(N=8), talking with others (N=7), and a special day (N=4) (pp. 60-61). In all participants, the

initial recall of the traumatic event was never experienced in a narrative form, but rather

occurred as a sensorimotor experience, with or without associated emotionsin the form of

visual images, affective reliving, auditory reliving, kinesthetic reliving, or somatic reactions such

as in a smell and as a taste. Whether initial and ongoing recall occurred with or without affect,

participants reported that their memories of trauma were not experienced as integrated

autobiographical episodes.

Participants were then asked to choose a memory of a non-traumatic, emotional

experience, such as a vacation, receiving a compliment, the birth of a sibling, or winning a

prize. Many participants experienced difficulties in recalling a personally emotional but non-

traumatic event because they mentioned that they remembered little from their past (p. 63). The

majority of participants (60%) also reported that these personal non-traumatic events were

initially recalled as sensory fragments rather than as narratives, with little to no associated affect

or sense of familiarity. While subsequent recollections allowed participants to create narratives

of their experience, in all cases but one, these memories remained depersonalized.

The delayed recall (amnesia) and fragmented quality of participants memories of early

experiences was reported for both traumatic and non-traumatic events, demonstrating a global

difficulty among DID patients to integrate multiple sensory inputs into autobiographical

memory. Whereas other victims of trauma who suffer from PTSD may recall their traumatic

memories in a similarly disorganized form, findings have shown that PTSD patients memories

of non-traumatic events generally retain their autobiographical narrative structure upon

recollection (Kolk & Fisler, 1995). However, this unique finding in Van der Hart et al.s (2004)

study is not entirely unexpected, given that the core symptom of DID is the presence of two or

more discrete identities or personality states.

As pages 46-48 of this review have illustrated, sensory input from an event is integrated

into ones autobiographyi.e., ones explicit or episodic memoryprimarily through

hippocampal processes. The detection of novel events, places, and stimuli; the contextual details

and spatial configurations of an episodic memory; the encoding, consolidation, and retrieval of

episodic memories; and the synthesis of somatic, affective, and physiological components of an

event into a cohesive template are processes that depend on active functioning of the

hippocampus. The memories of DID participants in this study displayed a striking lack of these

features, illustrating the powerful influence that early childhood trauma can have on long-term

episodic memory.

There are a number of explanations as to how hippocampal functions break down in

individuals with dissociative disorders and other trauma-based psychopathology. Van der Hart et

al. (2004) note that corticosterone, a hormone released by the adrenal cortex in periods of

extreme stress, can disrupt hippocampal activity, thereby interfering with the integration,

localization, and categorization of events. This could result in the imprints of experience

remaining isolated, temporally disordered, and stimulus-bound (van der Hart et al., p. 65). The

researchers suggest that in adults with hippocampal damage associated with childhood trauma,

even mildly arousing information may interfere with the hippocampus processing of incoming

sensory information. Additionally, they discuss recent findings that support the hypotheses that

there are positive correlations between hippocampal shrinkage and the severity of dissociation,

as well as the reported degree of traumatization. A series of studies conducted by Nijenhuis et al.

(1998; 2002; 2003) found that hippocampal volume was strongly associated with somatoform

and psychoform dissociation, symptoms of post-traumatic stress, and cumulative trauma

reporting. Patients with DID had about 25% smaller bilateral hippocampal volume compared to

healthy controls.

Borderline personality disorder, like dissociative identity disorder, is a diagnosis

frequently applicable to survivors of childhood abuse. However, whereas severe DID is very

strongly linked to childhood sexual abuse (CSA), research has indicated that approximately 10%-

30% of borderline individuals do not report a history of sexual abuse, although CSA is more

prevalent among individuals with BPD compared to other personality disorders (Hong et al.,

2011). The sufferer of BPD is subjected to a similar process of temporal fragmentation as DID,

rooted in a personal history of unstable attachment, with protracted affect dysregulation and

related symptomatology compelled by vehement strivings to distance oneself from past

suffering. However, this disorder manifests itself differently than DID in a number of important


Borderline Personality Disorder

Patients with borderline personality disorder lack the capacity to establish a coherent self-
concept. Instead, they adopt what could be called a post-modernist stance towards their life,
switching from one present to the next and being totally identified with their present state
of affect. Instead of repression, their means of defence consists in a temporal splitting of the
self that excludes past and future as dimensions of object constancy, bonding, commitment,

responsibility and guilt (Fuchs, 2007, p. 379).

The borderline individual is a conscious victim to his or her extreme emotional

fluctuations, and places sole interest in fulfilling the impulses that arise in the present, thereby

embodying a mode of conduct that very much resembles the behavior of the early caregiver who

originally triggered the fragmentation process. The repercussions for identity in BPD, DID, and

other trauma-related psychopathology include a chronic feeling of vacancy that stems from

rigidly constructed temporal perspectives. Implicit memory precludes the formation of a

complete obstruction between the effects that ones past have on the present, but embedded

within the cognitive processes of the borderline individual is an incapacity to recognize this

temporal link, and thus an incapacity to garner any meaning from the past.

To elucidate the structural necessities of a self that the borderline individual lacks,

Fuchs draws on the philosophical perspectives of Nietzsche and Paul Ricoeur. Nietzsche wrote

in his Genealogy of Morals : Man is the animal which is able to make promises. In Fuchs

interpretation, a promise requires an efficient memory systemone that does not forget past

thoughts and actions, and thus enables the individual to project desires and ambitions into the

future. This capacity for rememberingor, in other words, this inability to forgetalso makes

humans morally responsible for their actions. However, since those with BPD are governed only

by the present moment, memory becomes irrelevant, promises are rendered impossible, and the

essential human feature of autonomy evaporates along with them.

In Oneself as Another (1990), Riceour argues that identity is not formed through mere

sameness or constancy of things, but rather through the individual, the continuous being, in

relation to itself. In being faithful to ourselves, by adhering to our norms and values, we are

faithful to our temporal continuity. This concept is similar to the previously discussed matter of a

narrative identityan internal autobiography that is cumulative, self-referential, and created by

the self for the self and others.3 The self also contains an inner witness or an implicit

other: Both responsibility and promise, which Fuchs believes are emblems of selfhood, make

clear that these concepts of personal identity are essentially related to the other . . . the person we

talk to and to whom we are responsible, be it a real or imaginary person (Fuchs, p. 380). Rooted

in the overarching implicit other is the representation of I over time, a self that will

undoubtedly include people and relics of influence, who continue to survive as symbolic

representations or co-authors in our life stories.

However, the implicit presence of the other presupposes early experiences of object

constancy and secure attachment. The experience of a mutual emotional attunement between an

infant and caregiver involves adequate holding, soothing, and mirroring for the child. Though

these [patterns] date back to preverbal and prereflective periods, their results become particularly

manifest in deficits of reflective or representative functions required for establishing a narrative

identity (Fuchs, p. 383). Borderline individuals live without this essential source of self-

coherence, and instead are driven by a mercurial temperament that has been instituted as a both

an early representation of an unstable early life and as a form of psychic resistance against the

awareness of this disturbing past. The ambiguities, nuances, and contradictions that are revealed

through self-reflection, while meaningful and expository for some, are threatening to those with

chronically discontinuous identity structures. Because past experiences for borderline individuals

are often as markedly reckless and disorganized as their present behavior, there is no coalesced

life narrative to observe or utilize in daily life. Fuchs writes that:

Borderline individuals exhibit a characteristic temporal structure: they are only what they are
experiencing at this moment, in an often intense and yet empty and flat present; for this present
may only be experienced passively, not as the result of ones own planning and will (p. 381).

3 See Section 3, part III: Personal Identity as Autobiography

When examined retrospectively, the etiology of BPD has a developmental trajectory that

is far less serpentine than most dissociative disorders, even though borderline individuals often

experience varying levels of dissociation. DID individuals reflexively pull shrouds over a past

that only they can uncover and interpret, yet they simultaneously struggle to hide these memories

in places that will never be found, through stress-induced amnesia and alters that are elicited by

specific and subjective contextual cues. By contrast, the behavior of borderline individuals,

though also polysymptomatic and context-based, manifests as a highly recurrent pattern of

instability with pronounced vestiges of early abandonment and chronic invalidation.

These borderline symptom patterns preceded the development of Dialectical behavior

therapy (DBT)a therapeutic system established by American psychologist Marsha Linehan

(1993) that aims to address the common symptoms of borderline pathology that work in tandem:

in efforts to avoid their central fear of abandonment, borderline individuals experience rapid

emotional shifts; unstable, superficial, and temporary relationships; impulsivity and self-injuring

behavior; and psychotic delusions and/or dissociative symptoms (DSM-IV-TR, 2000). The

dialectical behavior therapist helps borderline patients build a tolerance for emotional discomfort

through a merging of Western psychodynamic theory and Eastern awareness practices. The

primary goal of this therapeutic structure, similar to treatments for other personality and/or

trauma-based disorders, is integration. A trusting, supportive relationship between the therapist

and the borderline patient will promote the restoration of internal deficits caused by early

empathetic failures. By encouraging conscientious and unhurried self-reflection, habituated

black-and-white assessments will become more flexible, the patient will make self-discoveries in

relation to personal history, and an autonomous self may begin to grow. When unwanted moods

surface to consciousness, therapists suggest that borderline individuals use these awareness

practices to sit with their emotions instead of actively averting them; observe and reflect upon

their potential origins and meaning instead of habitually dismissing them as wholly negative; and

allow them to subside without impulsive banishment.

The theory and practice of self psychology, pioneered by Heinz Kohut, attributes nearly

all disorders of the self to disruptions and deficits in early childhood development. One may or

may not position such disturbances within the general spectrum of traumatic experience, in view

of the fact that not all infants who are raised in unstable family environments grow up to be

pathological (Hong et al., 2011; Kohut & Wolf, 1978). In his work on primary and secondary

disturbances of the self, Kohut underlines the long-term impact of chronically unwholesome

atmospheres, rather than discrete traumatic events such as the loss of a parent or the primal

scene, as the foremost ingredient in subsequent self disorders:

[Discrete instances of trauma] may be no more than clues that point to the truly pathogenic
factors . . . these events leave fewer disturbances in their wake than the chronic ambience created
by the deep-rooted attitudes of the selfobjects, since even the still vulnerable self, in the process
of formation, can cope with serious traumata if it is embedded in a healthily supportive milieu
(1978, p. 416).

As a result of unhealthy rearing environments, early unmet needs and discouraging

interactions with caregivers are internalized by the child as self-representations and self-

potentialities. When the childs need for self-affirmative mirroring is insufficiently met by the

primary selfobject (usually the mother) and when the childs necessary idealization of and

merging with an empathetic, nurturing, and trustworthy selfobject is met with disregard,

inconsistency, or reprimand, these are the experiences the child must use to constitute the

infrastructure from which the self will emerge. The quality of the relationship between the self

and its selfobjects can be conceptualized as the ground floor of the edifice of selfhood. The

adult self may thus exist in states of varying degreees of coherence, from cohesion to

fragmentation; in states of varying degrees of vitality, from vigor to enfeeblement; in states of

varying degrees of functional harmony, from order to chaos (Kohut & Wolf, 1978, p. 414).

What Kohut refers to as primary disturbances of the self: the psychoses, borderline states, and

narcissistic disorders, are compound disorders, influenced by a variety of conditions external to

the first years of life. However, abundant research on the outcomes of unhealthy selfobject

relations has demonstrated that these early patterns almost always inflict indelible injuries on the

experience of self.

Insecure attachment styles are typically cultivated within a milieu marked by pervasive

invalidation. In the analysis of BPD, this experience cannot be trivialized, especially when it

occurs in conjunction with trauma. Borderline individuals report a high prevalence of childhood

sexual abuse, and while the link between these phenomena has been substantiated as correlative,

precise knowledge of the factors that drive this relationship remains incomplete. However,

trauma research has demonstrated the powerful influence that ones social context has on the

choice to remain silent or to disclose traumatic experiences, and how these decisions affect

individuals perceptions of self.

With regard to BPD, a recent study by Hong et al. (2011) investigated the impact of

perceived and anticipated invalidation of childhood sexual abuse on borderline symptomatology.

Their results suggested that individuals perceived and anticipated CSA-specific invalidation at

the time of disclosure, as well as a pervasive environment of general invalidation, were better

predictors of borderline symptomatology than an actual experience of sexual trauma in itself.

When children are raised in invalidating environments, the expectations they form about

themselves in relation to others will reflect the discouraging interactions that have constituted

their autobiographical experience, as well as the accompanying anxiety, distrust, impulsivity,

and paranoia that have become habituated adaptations to real or imagined abandonment.

In most cases, the social context that surrounds a traumatic event, and the victims

perceptions of that social context, can be as significant for personal identity as the trauma itself.

Dissociative identity disorder and borderline personality disorder are two forms of identity

pathology that often involve antecedent trauma, and it could be argued that, while trauma is one

precipitant for the onset of DID and BPD, the damaged self that evolves from a childs social

sphere, before or alongside trauma, is the greatest predictor of these self disorders.

Though psychogenic amnesia, dissociation, temporal disorientation, and altered

perceptions of self are trauma-based symptoms that often operate in conjunction, we should not

take this common symptomatology to mean that victims of trauma can fit so seamlessly into

diagnostic criteria. The idea of a prototypical victim is misguided; as this section of our review

has shown, the variables that shape the trauma-based etiologies of DID and BPD almost always

originate in phenomena outside the realm of the trauma in question and, once amalgamated with

the impact of the traumatic event, effectuate pathology that has previously been either active or

dormant. Diagnostic symptom constellations are but one feature of the study of traumaa

discourse which, in general, puts forward far more convolutions than certainties.

The elaborate and compound process through which victims interpret and accommodate

themselves to trauma begins to unravel when one takes a narrow analytical perspective in order

to observe particularities, while remaining aware of the inclusive features of traumatic

phenomena in relation to historical junctures, social norms, and generational characteristics. It is

these alternations of scopein looking at the subtleties of discrete events as well as the wider

social and historical contexts in which they are rootedthat brings clarity to the study of trauma.

For example: prolonged traumatic experiences such as warfare have inflicted post-traumatic

stress on millions of war veterans, and while PTSD symptoms are relatively uniform, PTSD

sufferers are not. Understandings of PTSD and war veterans are fortified by micro-level analyses

of the details pertaining to the particular warfactors such as whether recruitment was

compulsory or voluntary; the veterans personal beliefs about war (pre-combat and post-

combat); the normative meaning of war in ones nation; the perceived quality of ones own

service: i.e., the veterans level of responsibility, the power attributed to the veterans rank, and

how well the veteran fulfilled personal and social expectations; and the collective response

towards the veteran upon his/her repatriation (e.g., condemnation, reverence, or reticence from

the public and/or within ones family) are some of the variables that mold the veterans memory

of war experience, and thus mold his/her self-concept of what it means to be a war veteran.

These considerations, many of which are applicable to other forms of trauma, are remarkable in

that they are all created by and subsumed under social constructions.

The final section of this review will address these socially structured facets of trauma

through an analysis of the significant interplay that occurs between the individual and the

collective after upheavals and displacement. When both personal and collective identities are

fractured, when ones home is lost, when meanings associated with place are destroyed, how

does the notion of personal identity change? And where can one find threads of temporal

continuity? These are some of the questions that will be investigated in the following pages.

Afterward, this writing will conclude with remarks on matters left uncertain due to the limited

scope of this review, suggestions for future research in the domain of personal identity and

memory, and a brief discussion of implications for identity continuity and fragmentation in

present-day American culture.

II. Identity and Remembrance in the
Wake of Collective Trauma

A brief glance backwards in history can attest to a number of mental illnesses that are

encapsulated in time and place, with clusters of symptoms derived from and ossified in cultural

systems and symbology (Horwitz, 2002). A cascade of women who displayed identifiable

symptoms of hysteria in late-nineteenth century, patriarchal Europe; the Multiple Personality

Disorder epidemic, which erupted shortly after the publication of Sybil in 1973. These

movements are not coincidental. While these disorders propagated rampantly, they were entirely

bounded by context, each with a definitive commencement and cessation. From the perspective

of a twenty-first-century outsider, these prescriptive, iatrogenic illnesses with their culture-

stipulated symptoms, brazen and ostentatious, border on absurdity. However, these examples

reveal with candor the staggering extent to which human suffering manifests in conformity with

systems of social meaning. Suffering is boundless, but is it possible that internal beliefs and

outward expressions of identity discontinuity are bred by culture, as portrayals of the prevailing

dilemmas of the masses?

In his novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1979), Milan Kundera writes, The

struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting (p. 4). One may

interpret Kunderas statement, in part, as a remark on the complications awakened by dissonant

incentives for remembrance. Discordant interpretations of history within a cultural milieu

between people whose views embody either the dominant or the subdued, the political or the

personal, or the normative or the criticalmay perhaps constitute another environment of

pervasive invalidation for victims of trauma. In cases of collective trauma, there are at least three

running narratives of experience that are enmeshed and seek negotiation: first, there is an

individuals personal reactions to and perceptions of trauma; second, there are the responses of

close othersfamily, friends, and fellow victimswho are in some way involved in the event;

third, there is the public discourse surrounding the eventthe dominant or normative system that

communicates the accurate interpretation and memory of the event; the normal victims

response; and what the event signifies for the individual, the community, and the nation.

These intersecting narratives of experience correspond with observations that sociologist

Edna Lomsky-Feder (2004) has made in her analysis of Israeli veterans interpretations of the

1973 Yom Kippur War. Her contention is that, within the life stories of war veterans, personal

memory is embedded within, designed by, and derives its meaning from a memory field that

offers different interpretations of war. Yet this memory field is not an open space, and the

remembering subject is not free to choose any interpretation he wishes (p. 1). While narratives

are formulated in respect to the conditions of the surrounding memory field, this memory field is

framed by the conditions of time and place, of history, legacy, and national ideology. The

meanings of war are cultural products, and the dominant voice that Lomsky-Feder identified in

the Israeli interviewees narratives of the Yom Kippur War was a cultural message of war as a

normalized experience. In many of their stories, the veterans drew attention to the traumatic

impact that war has on their community, generation, or nation, but gave no accounts of how the

experience war had influenced them personally or otherwise denied that the war had

significantly inhibited them from moving on in their lives. Thus, the assertion that war is

traumatic, as well as its antipodethat war is not traumaticwere frequently proffered within a

single narrative.

Lomsky-Feder noted three cognitive solutions that the interviewees commonly used in

their narratives in order to bridge the conspicuous gap between the traumatic national memory of

war and their normalized personal memory: removal of the war from the personal story;

banalization of the war experience; and reference to a friend as a different behavior model. (p.

12). In removing the war from the personal story, the interviewees elevated their traumatic

experiences from a personal to a collective level (for example, one veteran stated, It was a very

traumatic event for everyone living in this country . . . but not on a personal level. It wasnt like

personal experiences (p. 12)). These tactics were most evident in the stories of noncombat

soldiers, who linked their self-proclaimed marginal positions to their nontraumatic personal

memories of war, because they were not really there and were not real participants.

The banalization of the war experience was also used to reduce the separation between

collective and personal memories. Minimizing the importance of the experience and treating it as

a natural part of life, the narrators convey their war experiences as fixed in time and place: a

temporary experience, after which ones life moved on. One veteran naturalized the war

experience by comparing it with birth: Were all shell-shocked, he said. Theres nobody

whom the war didnt affect in one way or another. But that doesnt make any difference, its like

everyone who becomes a father is birth-shocked (p. 14).

The third coping strategy for veterans attempting to lessen the gap between the collective

traumatic war memory and the unaffected personal war memory was the story of a friend who, in

contrast to the narrator, was influenced by the war. In their accounts, these friends were always

combat soldiers, many of whom underwent far worse experiences than the narrator and whose

reactions to the war were extreme and unusual enough to warrant psychological treatment.

These descriptions illustrated the cultural exceptions entitled to combatants for their

nonnormative behavior due to the prestige of their cohort. However, Lomsky-Feder notes that

the implicit message within these stories about friends is: Mine is the normal reaction.

The 63 interviewees who participated in Lomsky-Feders research were Israeli men, born

between 1952 and 1954, who represented the social elite of highly educated urban dwellers and

whose interpretations represented the hegemonic ideology of military masculinity. By nature of

their political creed, these veterans inherited a memory field that limited their interpretations of

war. The model of hegemonic military masculinity propounds war as a heroic experience for

men and as a meaningful contribution to the collective. War veterans who meet these social

requirements are entitled to interpretations of war that will be highly valued because of their

acculturated position in the social hierarchy. Thus, they have the power to redefine the normative

criteria of war in the memory fieldto express a critical stance with legitimacy. At the same

time, however, their membership in the hegemony limits the possibilities of interpretation and

recollection in order to ensure the continuity of the proper memory (p. 23). The interviewees

narratives encapsulate the capacity for movement in this relationship between social power and

the distributive criteria of memorywhile these veterans continue to demonstrate their military

masculinity through their voiced belief in war as a necessity and their affirmations of personal

unaffectedness. The narrators displace the trauma of war from their private lives, and instead

integrate the trauma of war to the national discourse by illustrating its effects on others in the

collective without undermining their subscription to the prevailing hegemonic ideology.

Lomsky-Feders study is a compelling example of how collective memory impinges on

the personal: private recollection, interpretation, and trauma are systems rooted in social context.

Indeed, as sociologist Anselm Strauss has written, Identities imply not merely personal histories

but also social histories . . . If you wish to understand persons . . . you must be prepared to view

them as embedded in historical context. Furthermore, A man must be viewed as embedded in a

temporal matrix not simply of his own making, but which is peculiarly and subtly related to

something of his own makinghis conception of the past as it impinges on himself (1959, p.


While most of the material in this review has accentuated the individual as the vital

representative of personal identity, owing to his/her role as the remembering self, the agent of

habit, the architect of meaning, the author of the life story, and the sole adjudicator of the

continuous I, these absolute statements do not preclude the high decisive social mold from

which the individual originates, evolves, and ultimately vanishes. Kundera, Lomsky-Feder, and

Strauss separately convey the same axiom: that all that one can define as personalidentity,

belief, judgment, etc.is irrevocably created in relation to, though not necessarily in accordance

with, ones social world. Additionally, we could argue that an individuals social world

includes both experiential and historical elements of influence: there is the experience of self

within a culture and the recognition of the self as a symbol of cultural legacy. In states of

inordinate distress, such as in the aftermath of shared traumatic events, these interwoven threads

can become tangled when a single event, mutually experienced among people of a culture,

results in a countless number of divergent interpretations, of which only a handful are publicly

recognized and validated, while the rest are muted. The distinctions between I and the other,

private and public, fact and opinion, and reality and illusion are brought to the foreground of

significance after collective trauma, and while the contrasts between them acquire clarity,

the truth of the event varies according to context, and individual testimonies of experience are

obfuscated by the narratives of more dominant stratums of society.

In cases when trauma is perpetrated by one individual against another, there are two

principal memories of the experience, and thus two versions of the truth. If the victim seeks

therapeutic support, the general treatment approach will encourage the victim to reflect on his or

her memory of the experience and hopefully form an interpretation of the event that enables its

reintegration into ones life story as a coherent segment of the whole. The victims personal

undertaking of recreating experience and meaning is the central passage to the reclamation of the

past and the restoration of continuity. By contrast, the hasty and constrained interpretations that

are voiced in the wake of collective trauma, by political groups, social leaders, and other

dominant forces inside and outside the victimized community, enhance the individuals internal

confusion by widening the gap between the perceptions of the self and the other.

Devastating traumatic events throughout history, especially those perpetrated by humans,

defy logical explanation and dissolve notions of truth and order on multiple fronts. As a

consequence, most victims of these expansive tribulations are left with disorganized memories of

experience and a dearth of outlets for personal expression; since there are few adequate words to

describe their experiences, the much-needed process of reflection and meaning-making is

suppressed. When victims emotional wounds are neglected or withheld, their experiencesstill

fragmented and incoherentare forced underground, and while they are inevitably propelled

forward by time, their atrophied identities erase the experience of self from this temporal

movement. Moreover, the children of future generations are born bereft of their origins, but are

nonetheless forced to bear the weight of a cultural past that is abstract, misapprehended, or


A narrative of personal experience, framed within a substantive, collective chronicle, is

paramount for victims and their children to reclaim the past. In itself, the past does not make the

present meaningful; it is the internally recognized, collectively understood, and openly expressed

representation of the past that brings meaning to the present. A plurality of voices, publicly

acknowledged and memorialized . . . can be a beneficial trigger for a delayed morning, as well as

for a reconstruction of broken identities (Apfelbaum, 2000). Disclosure brings words to

experiences that are beyond description, and while words will never sufficiently convey the

damage caused by trauma, their transmission will ensure that the event is recognized as an

historical reality and, perhaps more importantly, that its effects are recognized as expansive

that victims memories will reverberate across generations. When personal and cultural

memories of trauma are detached from consciousness or entombed by silence, experiential time

is partitioned, instituting identity obstructions with no means of renewal. In empathetic contexts,

the dual processes of reflection and articulation bring a necessary level of social validation to

personal experience, which brings a corresponding level of meaning to the relationship between

past trauma and present conditionthe temporal self. When the past is realized as a source of

insight, the victim is able to discover and rediscover continuities in the life story.


As the matters of this review are perennial, and in many ways inscrutable, fascinations, it

is fitting that we conclude with the acknowledgment of surviving uncertainties and new

developments in this debate on memory and personal identity. In 2008, The National Institutes of

Health (NIH) spent $5.2 billion, almost twenty percent of its total budget, on brain-related

projects (Carey, 2009). Increased interest and funding in the field of neuroscience have allowed

scientists to make important new discoveries and contributions in brain research. However, with

the elevated attention paid to genetic engineering and enhancement, disease prevention and cure,

and the processes, molecules, and mechanisms of the memory system, the brain has become a

depersonalized entity. The brains behind brain research have capitalized on highly advanced

technologies that have enabled an alarming degree of human control over facets of human

biology that could previously be studied only as congenital phenomena. Particularly in the

Western medical domain, biotechnologies that are used to rectify disease have been further

exploited for purposes of human enhancement, eugenics, and the movement toward

transhumanism. These scientific advancements have undermined human nature through

restricting genetic vagaries, subverting our assumption of autonomy, and trivializing the role of

chance. Whether inadvertent or deliberate, whether valuable or injurious, the powers of

biotechnology have brought lasting implications for the epistemology and meaning of self

and identity.4

Our understandings of self, identity, and memory are transforming beyond the realm of

scientific research. The technological capabilities that the Internet has made available for public

consumption have in turn devised an alternative notion of human existence, at once both

governed and ungovernable by individuals. This reconstructed manifestation of identity is

perhaps best exemplified by the Facebook phenomenon.

There is a cornucopia of information that can be included in a single Facebook profile

page: ones name, date of birth, hometown, current location, sexual orientation, relationship

status, education, employment, interests, activities, photos, videos, notes, registers of online

social interaction, personal status updates, and a hyperlinked list of friends are documents of

life and identity that individuals disclose to a virtual network of over 800-million users.

The aggregate of data that one stores in this network essentially functions as an external

memory system. As visual representations of the past, we can click through images and be

4See Sandel (2007) for an insightful analysis of the bioethics of genetic engineering and its impact and the values
we ascribe to human nature.

reminded of when and where events occurred and who was present. In typed comments, we can

elaborate on the circumstances surrounding an image and make public appraisals of ourselves

and others in the scene (e.g., Oh my God. I cant believe I used to dress like this!) that receive

instantaneous social feedback (e.g., I know! Your style has changed, but you still gotta love that

summer of 96). These visual representations comprise rich and familiar source information for

our brains, functioning as visual retrieval cues for the memories associated with the images.

The self continuity function of Facebook was magnified on December 15, 2011, when the

companys developers officially launched Timeline, a new feature that allows users to

chronologically assemble momentous photos and videos, influential friendships, favorite text

exchanges, location updates, and other past activities and personal information. A Timeline

profilewhat Facebook co-founder Marker Zuckerberg describes as the story of your life

displays a cover photo at the top of each users profile screen that s/he has selected as

demonstrative of who s/he is. Below the image is a visual graph of highlighted experiences,

automatically summarized and categorized, edited and revised by the individual (Chapman,

2011). The Timeline feature may be used by the individual as an important and meaningful

repository for personal and collective memory. However, despite the truth documentation of the

pictures taken, the events encountered, and the words written, few would claim that their

Facebook profiles serve as faithful portrayals of personal identity and experience.

The information that one chooses to make public on Facebook may be characterized as

curated self-representations or fragments of identity. The reason why Facebook users may

perceive continuity in their personal Timelines is because they have lived the experiences

attached to the artificial narratives and have internally orchestrated the union of these memories

long before they existed in digital form. In this way, the factual exhibition of self continuity is no

less fabricated and selective than the individuals subjective reality of its existence. The evidence

is on the web page, but it needs human consciousness to be actualized. Conversely, humans who

have the conscious experience of temporal continuity need no further evidence.

A pertinent inquiry that is currently irresolute in psychological literature concerns the

ways in which cultural perceptions of personal identityparticularly in the context of American

societyhave shifted in the past decade, as well as the question of how human beliefs about

identity, memory, and continuity may change in the future. While the postmodern view has been

explored, as well as the influence of technology, this discussion would greatly benefit from

further psychological research in both theoretical and empirical realms. A full investigation of

these matters far exceeds the breadth of this review, but their relevance merits some speculative

considerations, which will serve as the closing remarks of our review on the temporally

continuous self.

Despite the recent lack of formal discourse on continuity theory, patterns of contemporary

American praxis are readily available to us, which we may use to explore the ways in which

personal identity is being conceptualized in our twenty-first century cultural milieu. Each of us is

at once a participant and a spectator in the fluctuations of American sensibilities, and it would

not be outlandish to assert that a great deal of human action and interest in the United States is

propelled by the value that dominant voices ascribe to vanity, in the forms of affluence, fame,

and power. These brazen messages are communicated by the media to an incessant degree. The

underlying tenor of this ideology, which is neither hidden nor explicitly stated, is that these

dreams of personal glory can ostensibly be achieved if one possesses the traits of egoism and

tenacity. The mass media constitutes the social hegemony, and its highly sexualized,

materialistic, and future-oriented perspective has caused a severe concomitant depreciation in the

practice of self-reflection. With temporal sight fixed on the futureon how one can ameliorate

the present self and garner happiness through the acquisition of commodities and mindless

adherence to normative trendsthe benefits of personal remembrance are being undermined.

Here is a somewhat hyperbolical example of how this American ideology can be reflected

in practice: A young woman from a small town moves to Los Angeles, gets breast implants, goes

on a raw food diet, frequents the local paparazzi hot spots, and begins networking among the

reigning socialites in popular night clubs, all in the hopes of reaching celebrity. These behaviors

suggest that this woman wants others to perceive her in a way that differs from how she believes

others have perceived her in the past. The perception of self continuity is meaningless, and at

times unwelcome, to individuals who are attempting to abolish their past conceptions of selfto

become a different person. Reflection may perhaps only become valuable to this woman when

she receives social feedback that confirms her ideal identity status: if she reaches celebrity, her

autobiography can serve as an emblem of redemption: the story of how a plain Jane from

Oklahoma became Paris Hiltons best friend, released her own fragrance line, and married a film

producer. This story of superficiality and self-absorption prevails in reality as a regrettable

variant model of our countrys longstanding ethos of the American Dreamwhich, at its core,

ascribes virtue to the common mans dogged hunger for change that is conducive to

perseverance, appropriation, exploitation, and ultimate prosperity.

The American obsession with symbols of personal enhancement (for example: obtaining

frequent and ample social recognition, procuring objects earmarked for social elites, idealizing

the notorious and deriding the pedestrian, compulsively attempting to overshadow the feats of

others, promoting hedonism as glamorous, etc.) emanates from a moral code that is on the cusp

of pathological narcissism. These self-serving maneuvers are in no way recent or novel in

American society; if anything, such egocentric modes of conduct have become ironically

commonplace. In 1979, historian and social critic Christopher Lasch published, The Culture of

Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, an insightful exposition of the

social development of the American narcissist. Thirty-three years later, this zeitgeist described

by Lasch persists with frightening zeal:

The mass media, with their cult of celebrity and their attempt to surround it with glamour and
excitement, have made Americans a nation of fans, moviegoers. The media give substance to
and thus intensify narcissistic dreams of fame and glory, encourage the common man to identify
himself with the stars and to hate the herd, and make it more and more difficult for him to accept
the banality of everyday existence (Lasch, 1979, p. 21).

Chronic self-absorption is a defining symptom of narcissism, but it is important to note

that the narcissists overt displays of conceit and grandiosity are both motivated by and entirely

contingent upon the presence and validation of others. Pathological narcissists are not vain

because they love themselves; they are vain because they need others to love them. Likewise,

their self-interest is spurred by the need for others to take interest in them. The symptoms of

narcissism are manifest inversions: they directly correspond with needs of love, empathy, and

admiration that have historically been met with absence, negligence, or injury. The narcissist,

through his/her preoccupation with the self, is outwardly conveying the reality of a self that,

inwardly, does not exist. Lasch does not judge the narcissistic trends in America as pathological

because they are normative behaviors based on distorted social representations of truth and

value. In a culture of egotism and mass consumption, it may be that individuals recognize their

personal continuity, but are either unmoved or dissatisfied by this perception. For those who

fixate on future prospects, the new and improved, and whats hot and whats not, the

perception of self continuity is merely an objectmoreover, it has already been acquired, it

didnt cost anything, and it impresses no one.

In the beginning of this review, the foundation of our discussion of identity and memory

was built from William James ideas about the consciousness of self and personal identity as

an aggregate of all that the self can deem ones own, or I. In Principles of Psychology, James

describes the warmth of familiarity that is felt when one reflects on personal memories. This

warmth, he suggests, derives from a sense of self-possessionof looking back in time and

recognizing that ones history, in thoughts, actions, and emotions, are imbued with a perception

self continuity and ownership. James uses a metaphor of a herder and his cattle to depict the

present thinking self and the collection of selves in his possession. The owners cattle are each

branded as members of his herd, and each brand . . . is the mark, or cause of our knowing, that

certain things belong-together (1890/1950, p. 337). Within this unified stream of selves, No

beast would be so branded unless he belonged to the owner of the herd. They are not his because

they are branded; they are branded because they are his (p. 337).

When Lasch writes of the common mans contempt of the herd, he is surely referring to

the general masses. However, would it be possible for the common mans

narcissistic identifi[cation] with the stars to be taken figuratively, as the relinquishing of his

own herd or, in others words, the abandonment of the continuous I? We may think about this

conjecturally, in the context of a dystopian society when behavioral continuity is the exception

rather than the rulewhen the self hinges not on memory, but on momentary strivings to satisfy

impulses, to cohere with the present idealized object, and to liberate oneself from the temporal

bounds of habit, remembrance, and expectation. If the perception of self continuity is the crux of

personal identity, as this review has ventured to illustrate, we must ask ourselves if the notion of

personal identity would exist in a world where all herds of cattle are branded, but owners have

no knowledge of which mark is theirs.


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