Distorted Memories and the Self. Lisa Bortolotti

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A distorted memory is a report of a past event where the past event is misrepresented in some key respect, for instance incorrectly located in place or time. There is no awareness of the distortion and, thus, no intention to deceive. Consider the following case. A woman with Alzheimer’s disease has a vivid recollection of walking on the beach with her parents. She believes the trip occurred that very morning, when actually the trip occurred sixty years earlier, when she was a girl. Such a memory is inaccurate and engenders a number of false beliefs (e.g., that the woman’s parents are still alive, and that she is still young). Thus, it has obvious epistemic costs. However, in a context in which access to autobiographical memories is limited and declining, as in dementia, one such vivid recollection may help the woman connect with important aspects of her personal history in the absence of other reliable information. Her distorted memory may be instrumental to her retaining some important information about herself, despite the gaps and the inconsistencies.

The book Contented Dementia by Oliver James argues that it is possible to enhance wellbeing in people with Alzheimer’s disease by not challenging and often actively encouraging the person to revisit memories and form beliefs that can be partially inaccurate. For instance, the person with dementia may present herself as “the able gardener” or “the good bridge player”, remembering her past achievements and erroneously believing that the relevant skills have been preserved. The proposed method requires that the caregiver be supportive of the person’s distorted memories and delusional beliefs in order to minimize stress, increase wellbeing, and build a working interpersonal relationship that is likely to bring mutual contentment. But the method is predictably controversial. Even if it were successful in achieving its goal, that is, making the life of people with Alzheimer’s disease more pleasant, the concern is that the whole life of the person with dementia may end up following a carefully worded script, involving many repetitions and deceptions. Many feel uneasy about this, because they sense that there is a trade-off: the person with Alzheimer’s disease attains happiness at the expense of knowledge, and her life lacks authenticity.

This is a well-rehearsed problem in psychology: Ulric Neisser argued that memory plays a double function, aiming at the same time at veracity and utility. As he and many others after him have observed, these two aims can conflict. We can feel better about a past event by putting a positive spin on that event, but the ensuing memory may not represent reality faithfully. The point we want to make in the Epistemic Innocence project is that the trade-off view of the relationship between pragmatic and epistemic benefits of distorted memories may be too simplistic. What if distorted memories played an important role in the retention of true beliefs about the self? This line of thought does not amount to a vindication of any specific approach to dementia care. It does not necessarily follow from this that distorted memories should go unchallenged, or that caregivers should live in the often delusional world of the people with dementia. Rather, the suggestion is that we should reconsider the role of memory distortions in the overall cognitive economy of the clinical population and of the individual, and make sure that interventions and interpersonal regulation are informed by what we discover about the epistemic features of distorted memories.

If you want to know more about how the Epistemic Innocence project addresses the issue of distorted memories, you can read relevant posts on the Brains blog and the Imperfect Cognitions blog.

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