Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Remembering from the Third-Person Perspective?

A few days ago, I heard a National Public Radio interview on the topic of autobiographical memory. One thing the interviewee said stuck in my mind: People who remember past events in the "third person" (i.e., as though viewing themselves from the outside) differ from those who tend to remember past events in the "first person" (i.e., as though looking at it through their own eyes again). Among other things, this researcher claimed that third-person memory was better associated with accepting one's past mistakes and growing in response to them.

Several things in those remarks set off my skeptical alarms, but let me focus on one: Do people really remember events in the third or first person? I have no doubt that if you ask people to say whether a memory was first- or third-person, they'll be kind enough to give you a confident-seeming answer. But do autobiographical memories of particular past episodes have to have a visual perspective of this sort?

Some behaviorally quite normal people claim never to experience visual imagery. Let's suppose they're right about this. Of course they nonetheless have autobiographical episodic memories. How would such memories have a first- or third-person perspective, if there's no visual imagery involved? Would they have a first- or third-person auditory perspective? (Well sure, why not? But is this what the researchers have in mind?)

Maybe memories can be episodic and not visual at all; or visual yet not perspectival. The great writer Jorge Luis Borges and the emiment 19th century psychologist Francis Galton describe cases of visual imagery from visually-impossible circular or all-embracing perspectives or non-perspectives (e.g., the front and back of a coin visualized simultaneously).

In the 1950s people said they dreamed in black and white. Now they say they dream in color. People seem to assimilate their dreams to movies -- so much so that they erroneously attribute incidental features of movies, like black and whiteness (and maybe also like coloration) to their dreams. Similarly, it seems that people in cultural groups that analogize waking visual experience to flat media like pictures and paintings are more likely to attribute some sort of flatness to their visual experience than those who use other sorts of analogies for visual experience.

So I wonder: Do we imagine that we're remembering things "from a third-person perspective" in part because we assimilate autobiographical memory to television and movie narratives? Maybe, because of our immersion in film media, we (now) really do remember our past lives as though we were the protagonist of a movie? Or maybe we don't really tend to do that, but rather report our autobiographical memories as being like that (when pressed by a psychologist or by someone else or even just by ourselves) because the analogy between movies and memorial flashbacks is so tempting?

Would people in cultures without movies have comparably high rates of reporting autobiographical memory as though from a third-person perspective? Probably this has never been studied....

32 comments:

Clark said...

I find I have memories of both kinds, often depending upon what I'm recalling. I suspect this is in part due to how the brain optimized the storage by picking out relevant "aspects" to the experience. i.e. if my perceiving it as if from me is important then it's first person whereas if the objective nature is more important I tend to have 3rd person memories.

Justin Tiwald said...

Huh. This is a very interesting post!

In light of your questions I'm having a hard time getting my head around the very idea of a 3rd person memory. Perhaps it's simply a memory like an other, but with the further belief that "it doesn't seem like that person was me" (or even "I don't know that that person was me"--as in some twins' accounts of early childhood). But if that's the case then 3rd-personality of memory wouldn't amount to much.

Daryl said...

Hi Eric. What you've set up here is a new point of entry to what I was trying to say earlier, specifically through your reference to media-influenced conjectures about visual experience. When you try to establish a visual space of clarity by asking about the distance between a central point and a point at which you're able to make out a stipulated amount of detail in an object, you effectively concede to the projectivist view of visual experience that you otherwise seem to be wary of. The pure, self-identical presence that I spoke of earlier would be the two-dimensional surface. You construct that surface by making the metaphysical assumption of an unbroken continuity from one differential point of interest to the next, and it is in terms of that continuity that you purport to measure the distance between two points. That's the first punch line. The second punch line is that you arbitrarily select the point of retinal alignment as the true center because that's what interests you most of the time. But sometimes there are things that you can see only obliquely. On those occasions the central point lies in what you would ordinarily consider to be the periphery. In your card experiment, then, the central point would be that point at which you are just able to make out the card's suit and value. Not only that, but the point of retinal alignment is infinitely far from that central point insofar as there are infinite differential points of interest between them. Again, Zeno's paradox.

Pete Mandik said...

I have some 3rd personal memories, and weirder still, some 3rd personal dreams. The dreams are really weird, there will be a character in the dream that I somehow know is me and I watch the events of the dream unfold from a wandering impersonal camera view.

In both the memory and the dream case, things are visual and persepctival: there is a standard camera's eye view. It's just that I am the viewed not the viewer.

this strikes me as pretty puzzling and I should stress, it doesn't happen to me very often. But I do blame TV.

Clark said...

Pete, I surprisingly have a lot of 3rd person dreams where I'm a character in almost a movie but I'm watching it like a movie. I'm glad I'm not the only one. I told my wife that I have dreams like that and she thought it a bit odd.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the interesting comments, folks!

Justin, I like your point about twins confusing their memories. (My father is a twin and in reminiscing about childhood often says, "and then one of us did this...".) But it isn't confined to twins. I think back to things my high school buddies and I did, and I can't remember which of us did which things. What's going on? Am I playing it as a movie with the wrong faces, or blurry faces? At a minimum, this exemplifies how reconstructive our memory is. It isn't like rewinding a video and then having the same experience a second time!

Okay, Daryl, I think I'm beginning to get a better handle on your concerns! First thought: Can I get out of assuming that experience is two-dimensional by talking in terms of angular distance, rather than distance as if on a plane? (To think in terms of visual angle rather than square area is my first impulse in such matters, anyway.) Second thought: I agree that the center of attention or cognition can come apart from what you call "the point of retinal alignment" or (I'd say) the experience corresponding to input from the foveal center of the retina. I don't *think* acknowledging this creates any problems for my view -- in fact, it's central to it!

Interesting thoughts about dreams, Pete and Clark. I do wonder, though, whether you really are having 3rd person dreams, or whether you simply think your dreams are that way because you overanalogize them to movies -- as people used to think their dreams were black and white! Of course, that wouldn't explain why you sometimes remember your dreams as 3rd personal and other times as 1st personal. Not that I have any reason to think 3rd person dreams are intrinsically unlikely.... It's just that the science of experience has a *long* way to come, still!

Daryl said...

My own impulse is to say no re: the determination of angular distance, but that's just me. If the points of interest are singularities that are always phenomenologically "front and center," I would think they are more like pulses, that is, their distance from each other is only temporal. Then again, time itself is subject to the same analysis as space....

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Am I hearing some Kant? I guess I'm still inclined to think that we can think about the angular distance between the center of attention and the foveal/retinal center -- far periphery vs. mid periphery vs. virtually adjacent to the foveal center. Maybe this is just a form of our perceptual experience that doesn't reflect how things are in themselves -- but that's exactly what I'm interested in, anyway, the nature of our experience....

Eddy Nahmias said...

OK, Eric, I'm pretty sure I've told you about the Ulric Neisser study on this before, but he has a paper that showed people report memories more from the 3rd person p.o.v. the longer ago the memory. This research accords with my own experiences.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks, Eddy. That does sound familiar now that you mention it! That would fit nicely with the radio psychologist's idea that 3rd-person-perspective memories are more likely to be seen as a version of yourself that you've moved beyond.

m said...

Ok. M's only in yr9 so forgive her if she misunderstood what Eric was trying to say.

The influence of visual media bit seemed to make sense... would one still recall (or think they recall) memories in third person if they frequently indulged in, like, manga and text? As far back as M can remember, she has had 3rd person memory, but she only (conciously) watches 0 - 40 min. of television per day. Or is that enough time to make enough of an impact?

Nobody's Savior said...

Is there a translator in the house for what Daryl said? (Doctorate degree in Psychology/minor in Philosophy, am I right?)

Anonymous said...

What a great blog. I tried to explain to people that when I recall a memory from the past it is always from a distance looking down on myself, like in the 3rd person I guess.
I'm not sure why I remember this way, or how I would come up with how everything looked from far away as opposed to what it actually looked like through my eyes when I experienced it. Weird stuff man.

Matt said...

I think there's a big aspect of memory being missed here, and that is re-encoding. Memories change over time. I myself have been able to observe the shift in my childhood memories from first-person to third-person. Some have become one solitary image with a story attached, because that's the story I always told.

I believe that's where the influence of popular media would come in - when we recall our memories and then 'put them back', they are best interpreted and explained by a popular media that we and the people around us have experience with. So, the more you re-encode a memory, the more it will become like what you watch.

twink said...

Okay, i had an expeirience in my youth expierimenting with a powerful phycadelic.. at the peak of an intense "look inside myself" i rose out of my body, at first i was only aware i was floating above myself, then with a flash, became aware of myself from BOTH perspectives SIMULTANEOUSLY.. I SWEAR I COULDN'T make This UP! then with an even more terrifying move, i was in 4 places, all me, all perspectives were aware of its own surroundings, all at the same time.. One floating, one sitting down (MY PHYS> BODY), one standing in front of myself looking at myself, and one was in the sky looking down on myself when i was 4 years old in a parking lot, (which i distinctivly remember was my 1st expierience with deja vu) all of these perspectives were as clear as day and completely parallel.. IT Horrified me!!! but about 6 months ago when describing a memory i had as a child to a friend of mine, i came to the realizations that nearly all my memories were in third person, unaware that there were any studies done on this subject, i began asking people i knew, whether they recalled memories in third or first person, much to my suprise of the 100 people i asked 56% were third, their race and sex had nothing didn't seem to matter.. I really don't know what my subconsious was telling me in the forementioned expeirience, but maybe our brains percieve way more than it lets on..

Bryan said...

I only remember in 3rd person. Memories both good and bad, near and far appear as if I'm outside my body observing.

killianr1 said...

I can tell as soon as I close my eyes how quickly I am going to sleep. If I start seeing the images right away I will be to sleep very quickly. I often wonder if what I experience is a hypnagogic dream of some sort. Usually I see images that keep morphing into other images. Mainly I see faces. Usually they are grey to black with outlines in muted colors. Ocassionally they turn to vibrant colors. Before I know it I am off asleep.
Nights when I dont see the images, might as well turn the TV back on. I'm not going to sleep.

T. said...

Is an a posteriori self-perception from a 3rd person perspective not pathological? It is usually reported by victims of extreme accidents or violent crimes, hostage takings, torture. A relevant question in such cases is, at who and where precisely the "3rd person perspective" is located. If , as you hint to, 3rd person perspective memories etc. occure in many people outside such extreme situations, it's distribution, characteristics and stability should be of interest. It would have very strong implications if a lot of people were fundamentally pathological in that issue.

T. said...

Here is a new article about the research of such disorders, their variety and the neurology behind that.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm not sure it's pathological, T. Lots of ordinary folks seem to report it, for ordinary memories.

Anonymous said...

As far as I can remember, I have had memories in "3rd person". It is as ifI am looking down at myself doing something that I remember. I'm really interested in anything to do with this topic, and really want to fin out more.

Ryn said...

I know for me personally, this is something I looked up because I observed myself that many of my memories are in third person. I can reconstruct the first person memory, but it feels less visceral.

No psychologist pressed me to think about this, I observed it in myself and felt it was strange.

The fresher the memory the more likely I am to remember it in first person, after a few weeks I see it in third.

Kat J said...

I have recently been reading up on this subject.
I, myself, not only dream in 3rd person perspective, but also remember real events in 3rd person.
It is obviously a subconscious action, as when I realize I am in this perspective I almost immediately 'switch' back into 1st.

While you make a good point that TV may be the cause by acclimating our subconscious to 3rd person perspective, I have also come across another theory that may have just as much merit.

This theory stated that by dreaming or remembering in 3rd person, we are attempting to distance ourselves from the proceedings, and this outer view of ourselves shows us of our mistakes and allows us insight to who we are.

That by viewing the 'outside', and already *knowing* the 'inside', we come to a middle ground of seeing ourselves in someone else's shoes, and *being* ourselves.

But as I said, these are only theories.
;)

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Kat J: Could be. Is there systematic evidence that certain kinds of memories -- the ones that, a priori, one might like one would want more distance from -- are more likely to be reported as experienced from a third-person perspective?

Ian said...

Hi there,

An excellent topic with a million questions left to ponder.

I have found that I recall events in third-person where I have perhaps told the story again to someone else, perhaps changing the memory and therefore made it more cinematic.

It would be my guess that memories recalled in third person are already dramatised memories that we have gone on to say. This would add weight to your cinematic comment. In telling a story back to someone, we then go on to remember the story we told and the exact details of the memory are lost to a new context. We have taken the first person detail and applied them to build a picture that can be told and visualised to others, simultaneously reconstructing it in our mind.

At the moment I am trying to connect with my emotions. I have a difficulty expressing how I feel and, although I am an outgoing, positive and creative guy, I have a deep sadness and unresolved anger at stages in my life that I can't either remember or feel. When I try to reconnect with them, I cannot associate the past emotion, merely my matured, experienced expectation of what I should have felt. Most of those recollections are in third person. So, is it possible I may have detached my emotional feedback with those accounts and reformulated the entire episode in my head to something else. Something I could deal with?

Interesting...

Anonymous said...

Ian, I am in a memoir writing group and have not done a lot of writing in the past. I have started in the third person much to the consternation of the group. I experience what you expressed in the last paragraph of your comments.I almost feel as though the me I am today is a disconnected/detached version of who I might have been in my early age of 4, 5,6, etc. I plan to continue in the third person until I find the way to transition to the first person that I am today.My emotions at that early age were a mystery to me I don't know if I felt or I disconnected from what I felt in order to survive.

maia-is-hyper said...

I have most dreams and memories in third person, and also in colour.

I think memories from childhood are in third person because someone has either told or reminded them on that. But I find myself remembering things in third person that happened last week. But they don't just stay in the same perspective, the view might change depending on what is happening...

Tyjon Chapple said...

Well, technically if you don't have an imagry associated with the memory it technically wouldn't be a episodic memory. I'd call it more of a recall.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

I'm not sure I'd insist on that, Tyjon. Do nonimagers, assuming they exist, have no episodic memories?

Anonymous said...

I am a tweleve year old male, and I have much of my memories in third person point of view. I have been rreading this disccusion, and am very curious, considering this involves me. What I wonder most is; how does people's brains dodd this, and why do only some people have this experience? I remember my dreams in third person point of view, but I am not sure if I dream them that way, or I just remember them that way.

What I decided to do is make a survey for my seventh grade, and if I have to eight grade, and it has you mark your name in a column that says:People that dream in third person only, people that have memories in third person only, people who dream in first person only, people who have memories in first person only, people who who have dreams in first and third person, and people who have memories in first and third person. You can have your name signed twice, one for dreams, the other for memories.

In the back of the survey there is a page that says this:This is a survey taken by, my name, THis is strictly for reasearch, and reasearch only. I am strongly intrested in how the brain remembers memories. I am also intrested in how the brain remembers dreams. I myself remember most of my dreams in third person point of view. For the most part, all my memories are in third person point of view.

The reason I take this large survey is , because I wonder why I remember things, memories, dreams, in third person, and overall only in third person point of view. This survey is taken from seventh, and some eigth graders in my middle school. I want at least one hundred surveyors.

I hope to learn from this, and a little reasearch, why the brain works this way, and if there is a way to remember choosingly between the two points of view.

What is the reason for this, is it a sign of higher or lower intellegence? Is it a sijgn of better understanding of people, people's feelings, of the world, or what? I thank all surveyors.

People who are reading this: feel free to survey this yourself. If you do reply please indicate you are talking to LuigiRocksMario.

Thanks

-LuigiRocksMario

Richelle said...

In much of my memories, they are third person. However I can also switch to first person if I choose.

In dreams (and in some memories) I usually dream in third and first person simultaneously, with it occasionally switching to just third or just first. It's a bit hard to explain, but it's like i'm looking from my eyes and an outside perspective at the same time.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad I found this conversation. I recently began EMDR to recover lost memories and have been questioning the validity of the ones that I can see from the third person. I can tell you that none of the events I am recalling have ever been discussed with anyone and therefore would not have switched from 1st person to 3rd person as though recalling a story as a rerun (for lack of a better word). It never occured to me until yesterday that I recall almost all memories in the third person. This realization has disturbed me a bit and caused me to question my own reality. Then I asked myself a simple question. Yesterday, I drove to work. When I think about that drive is it from a third person perspective? The answer is "yes". That got me thinking about other memories. They are almost all third person.