How Memory and Identity Are Connected, And Why

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Moonwalking With Einstein" by Joshua Foer. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is the relationship between memory and identity? How does your memory help form your identity, and vice versa?

The relationship between memory and identity is important for understanding your perception. Our long term memories help to form our perspective on the world, which affects how and when we create new memories.

Keep reading to find out more about how memory and identity are connected.

Memory and Identity

What does memory have to do with our identities? Historically, memory was a measure of character and virtue. Memorizing things helped you absorb them. For example, memorizing an oral poem about ethics was a way of internalizing ethics, so that any time a situation came up, you knew how to respond appropriately and morally. Memorization was meant to be humanizing. Therefore, memory and identity are closely related in human history.

In modern times, we can learn about ethics and morals in ways other than memorizing. However, memory is still related to who we are. Your memory is a record of what’s happened to you over your life and influences how you make new memories in the future. To create a new memory, you link your current perceptions to what’s already in the web in your head—everything you encounter is influenced by everything you’ve already encountered. Memory and personal identity are influenced by this complex wev.

Memory and Other Mental Faculties

Memory is related to many of the other things that go on in our brains, such as identity, expertise, intelligence, and our perception of time. In fact, memory and identity have a close relationship.

Because our memories are stored in a web of associations in our brains, whenever we encounter something new, our interpretation of it is filtered by what we already know. As a result, our memories of the past are constantly influencing our actions in the present. We behave the way we do because of our memories, and, therefore, our memories shape our identities.

Our memories also affect our expertise and intelligence. Interestingly, scientists have discovered that expertise isn’t a function of intuition or intelligence—it’s a matter of perceiving things and relating them to the patterns of associations we already have in our heads. Experts have seen so many versions of the same thing that when they came across a situation, they can instantly remember the most relevant previous experience and apply the correct response without even thinking. 

  • For example, chess players can look at a board and come up with the ideal move within five seconds. They don’t have to consciously plan out moves in advance or try to predict what their opponent will do because they’re so familiar with board positions, they know how things will play out.

Finally, memory has a large effect on how we perceive the passing of time. Contrary to the old adage about time flying when you’re having fun, time appears to pass more quickly when we’re bored and more slowly when we’re doing interesting new things and making new memories. For example, as you get older, do you feel like time passes more quickly? This is because you’re making fewer memories than you did as a child when you were encountering things for the very first time.

We remember events in relation to other events, so the more memories we can lay down, the denser our network of associations. The denser the web, the more time it feels like we have. Some people make new memories with the express purpose of making their lives feel longer.

Forgetting

When it comes to memory and personal identity, scientists used to think that people remembered everything that had ever happened to them, and memories only became inaccessible because the cues were lost over time. However, this is not the case—memories do fade over time at the cellular level.

Memories fade most quickly in the hours and days after forming. Anything that’s left after a month tends to stay with us long-term. Interestingly, our memories change over time. We tend to remember our oldest memories in third person, as if we were watching them, and our newer memories from our own points of view. Sometimes our memories change so much they no longer even accurately record what happened. In this way, memory and identity are formed early on.

Why don’t we remember anything before we were three or four? This should have been a very memorable time our lives—everything we encountered was new. It could be due to a few reasons: our brains aren’t fully developed until we’re three or four, most of our early learning is unconscious, and we don’t have language or a large existing web of associations. Even when we encounter new things, if we don’t have anything already in our heads to associate them with, they don’t stick.

Amnesia can also be responsible for forgetting, and is also a part of memory and personal identity. The acts of creating and recalling memories take place in different parts of the brain, so it’s possible to be unable to form new memories but still capable of remembering old ones, or vice versa. 

Now that you know how memory and identity are connected, you can consider how your memories have shaped you, and how it might affect how you form new ones.

How Memory and Identity Are Connected, And Why

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Joshua Foer's "Moonwalking With Einstein" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Moonwalking With Einstein summary:

  • The memory techniques that took the author from novice to US memory champion in one year
  • The 6 key types of memory we use everyday
  • Why memory isn't just genetic, and how you can improve your memory with the right techniques

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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