This is the fourth part in a four-part series. A brief recap…
Post 1 – I discussed the three components of fun:
Part 1 – Anticipating the fun (expecting the Future)
Part 2 – Doing the fun (in the Present)
Part 3 – Remembering the fun (looking back at our Past).
Posts 2 & 3 – I developed and discussed the Totality of Fun, a framework of how we perceive Fun, and described how our perception of Fun is malleable and can change dramatically over time. I also wrote about how those affected by Alzheimer’s are robbed of Part 1 and Part 3 Fun – as memories fade and self-continuity runs adrift. Eventually, even the ability to enjoy Part 2 Fun is compromised, as life becomes a series of bewildering surprises. Navigating the constant stream of unexpected events becomes too much to enjoy. And with this, all Fun is lost for those with Alzheimer’s, as is hope.
Post 4 (this one) – As the final post of this series, I’d like to explore further the idea of self-continuity and how we arrive at our knowledge of Self, which is somehow extremely important to our psychological well-being, as if the desire to understand Self is fundamentally engrained within us. The broad idea here is this:
Recalling memories of our Past and projecting our anticipated Futures define our Present concept of Self – who we are, or perhaps more accurately, a view of who we believe ourselves to be. Coalesced, these internal Past & Future narratives bond us to ourselves over time and provide us a sense of intact self-congruence.1
This is an easy concept to miss, until we observe faded or confused self-defining narratives in others, such as those with Alzheimer’s, where the opacity of memory reduces self-congruence and where the ability to self-anchor through time is profoundly diminished. Sometimes it takes a special, abnormal case, to better understand the gift and complexity of normality.
I began thinking about this concept of self-congruence2 after observing how Alzheimer’s voids memories, distorts time3 and nullifies expectations for the future – first with my grandmother (years ago in my youth) and now with my father. Through this, I began to understand the extreme importance of the interconnectedness of moments in time across our lives. The idea that our concept of Self, the very nucleus of our Being, is inextricably linked to our memories and to imagery of our possible futures, seemed a profound thought and worth further reflection.
I started this 4-post series with a discussion of the components of Fun – Past (remembering the Fun), Present (doing the Fun) & Future (anticipating the Fun) because, conceptually, this mirrors the notion of how we come to discover our inner Self, who lives in the Present, but is entirely defined by our Past and current views of our Future. And so, the whole dialog about Fun was a detoured (and fun) way to arrive here, to talk about something more serious – the discovery of Self and a more in-depth discussion of the disconcerting impact of Alzheimer’s – starting from its opposite, that of Fun.
Both Locke and Descartes wrote about the concept of Self in the 1600’s, although from different angles.4 Locke thought Self was defined by our memories (entirely in the continuity of memory) while Descartes came upon Self through thinking.5 The layer I would add, is my belief that the idea that Self is also partly defined by our Expected Futures, regardless of the accuracy (or even absurdity) of our own projections.6
Clearly, we create narratives for ourselves from our Past (sometimes accurate, sometimes disillusioned),7 but we also construct narratives about our expected Futures. In a sense,
self-identity is constructed from the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about the world around us, about who we believe we are and about who we think we might become.
If we repeat these stories enough, we even come to believe them, sometimes as self-defining, infallible truths. These stories not only give us the sense that we exist, but a view of who we are – the ability to say “I am generally this type of person”… even if that view is inaccurate. Consequently, both narrative types influence who we think we are, and the notion of Self is formulated, internalized and imprinted. Continually imprinted.
With that as a framework, let’s talk about the concept of Self and how we form this concept, both through memories and expected futures. Memories first…
Defining Self – from Memories
If our definition of Self is in part derived from our memories, the secret to who we are is hidden in our past,8 resurrected through our imperfect recollections.
Our quest for the definition of Self, the constitution of our atomic unit, is partly conceived in us by our early childhood recognition that we exist as unique objects in space and time. I suppose we don’t think about it so directly while young, but we intuit this idea through the input signals generated by our senses.
Very early on, we determine we are somehow contained within our physical body and everything else is “out there”. Fortunately, our senses are truly amazing and bombard us with vast amounts of data, continuously, allowing us to formulate perceptions of those things that exist outside of us. We must then filter, store and recall our perceptions of these data streams if we are to have the capacity to understand the world around us.
Filtering, Storage & Recall
Most input data from our senses is completely ignored, presumably filtered out as unimportant background noise. Much of it is just the hum of life… beautiful, but not urgent. After some layered filtering, we store a minuscule fraction of our perceptions from the input signals into our minds as memories, such that we might locate them for subsequent retrieval and (approximate) playback. We call this memory recall.9
Stored memories of our perceptions – derivatives from the inputs from our senses – are the substrate upon which we think. Thinking is precisely the recollection and intermingling of our stored perceptions. Thinking is also how we formulate our internal narratives, the stories we tell about ourselves.10 In this way, our Past experiences – stored as memories, and our subsequent thoughts about these memories – inform our narratives, which in turn shape who we believe we are. Through this, we develop a sense of Self through time.
And so, it would seem, one must have memories to enable thinking.11 Without a repository of memories – the warehouse of our past perceptions, filtered, codified, and stored – and the ability to recall them, there is really nothing to think about and we are simply tasked with the monotonous (and possibly frantic) routine of processing incoming signals from our senses and reacting to them – a completely reactionary world.12 This is the previously mentioned “endless string of surprises” experienced by those with Alzheimer’s, discussed in Post 3.
Threaded to Our Past
Rather than being completely reactionary, we are threaded to our Past by thousands of invisible strings, each moored to the filtered narratives we tell ourselves, derived from our Past perceptions stored in our memory. When we deviate from our Past’s constructed version of ourselves (our narratives), being the very essence of who we believe we are, we tug on these threads. Some of them, in turn, become taut and pull back against us, giving us the sensation that we are somehow pulling against our very natures. Thus, we are anchored to the narratives of our Past, good or bad.
In this way, memories force us to reconcile who we are now – the Present version of Self, the one preceding the Self we are becoming – to the experiences of our Past. Our memories thus bind us to ourselves through time, providing some semblance of continuity and self-congruence through the infinite complexity of life.
Understanding Self and existence is therefore inextricably linked to knowing oneself over time, through memory. So, our memories anchor us to who we believe ourselves to be and provide a starting point, establishing a notion of Self each moment, for each next moment.13 Having a semblance of stability of where we are, we may then look to the horizon and imagine a future for which we might aim, and imagine who we might become many moments from now.
Defining Self – from Our Expected Future Selves
If memories define our existence and provide self-congruence, our ability to forecast into the future – to create imagined expected outcomes for our future selves – gives us an aim, a direction and the possibility of hope. Future-casting thus provides us with built-in navigational sextants, to help us proceed, at least directionally toward our anticipated volition.
Through this, we gift our future selves a baseline of expectations in which to compare the reality of our Future-Current-Self. In the same way, our Past-Self envisioned our Future, which is now the Present. So, our Present-Self arrives with previously built, anticipated expectations from our Past-envisioned Future-Self.14 This is a feedback loop of self-discovery.15
Our Future-Present-Self will similarly gauge position and progress relative to the future expectations of our Past-Present-Self. In other words, how we feel about ourselves is also relative to how we expected to feel and how we expected our lives to be by this point (much like how Part 2 Fun is dependent on the expectation/anticipation of Part 1 Fun, discussed previously). It’s comparative and based on past projections of the future, which is now the present.
So, there’s something significant about being able to forecast a concept of the future, relative to where we believe we are now. If we do not project ourselves into the future, we have no expectations of our Future Self. Without this, why would we sacrifice today for our Future Selves of the tomorrows? We wouldn’t. Said another way, we simply wouldn’t put in the effort and work required of us today… because, by definition, work is the sacrifice we make in the Present for our Future.
To have some idea of the future is to have a perception of one’s own thoughts – a perception of the internal workings of our minds.16 That is, again, a concept of Self. Therefore, our envisioned futures also help construct our present concept of Self.
In Summary: Self-Congruence
Understanding Self and existence is inextricably linked to knowing oneself over time, through memory. So, our memories anchor us to who we are and provide a starting point, establishing a notion of Self each moment, for each next moment. Having a semblance of stability of where we are, we may then look to the horizon and imagine a future for which we might aim, giving us the ability to visualize a future and the possibility of hope. Together, these shape our concept of Self, allowing us to define who we are now and imagine who we might become in the next moments and many moments from now.
Through memory recall and imagined futures, our Past, Present and Future Selves are cohesive and feel somewhat linear.17 Memory recall and future imaginations are therefore the tools we use to connect to ourselves through time. They produce self-congruence. With this as a base, we may then coherently connect with others, if they too are cohesive, congruent and (at least somewhat) linear.
Conversely, without reliable memories and without the ability to project imagined futures, we lose the entire concept of Self. And with that loss of cohesiveness within our own Self, we are dysfunctional and completely unrelatable to others.
Alzheimer’s Erodes Self-Congruence and Meaning
While I have previously written about the benefits of Being in the Moment, the counterpoint is that living exclusively in the moment – without recognition of our Past and Future expectations – is severely limiting because we miss the interconnectedness of moments, a vital component to self-awareness and quality of life.18
With Alzheimer’s, self-cohesiveness diminishes and the interconnectedness with others slips away like a receding tide that never returns. Eventually, even the concept of Self is tangled beyond recognition and then completely absent. And even then, it’s still not over.
Frankl19 brilliantly discussed how we must find meaning in suffering. But I do not think the kind of suffering inflicted upon those with Alzheimer’s is what he had in mind. For this type of suffering seems truly pointless as it diminishes even the idea of Meaning.
In the mid-1600’s, Descartes said, “Ergo cogito sum”, rendered in English as “I think therefore I am.” But what if the thoughts are tangled and incoherent? It is exceptionally difficult to find Meaning when one slowly loses the ability to think. Mental acuity involves the mixing, blending and the fusing of abstracted concepts stored in our memories. Without access to these memories, there is little to blend into thought. Without lucid thought and reason, the concept of Meaning and even Self slowly fade to meaninglessness and pseudo-non-existence.
Alzheimer’s (and dementia in general) seem to turn off neural pathways, switch-by-switch, until blockades are placed on all available detours to access destinations of Self, deep in the crevices of the mind. With all the neural dead-ends, darkness falls, like removing a star from the night sky, one at a time. Dimmer and dimmer, until eventually, the illumination in the heavens of the mind is too faint to reflect the original magnificence and beauty of Being.
In the depths of that Darkness, in the near absence of neural light, is not just the fragility of life, but the Abyss where there is no meaning.20 It’s the continuation of life past its due. A death before dying. A lingering without knowledge of the Past, without orientation to the Present, without direction for the Future, without hope, without Self.
The best we may hope for in this situation, is that it might go quickly.21
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- This is the point at which I feel obliged to add the disclaimer that I am woefully unqualified and certainly inept to formulate the ideas I am presenting here, except as a form of general rambling from a simple layperson’s perspective. These are just my own contemplations, largely in isolation from modern thought on how we really work. So read this post with some healthy skepticism, as I am skeptical of my own thoughts and ideas on this topic as well.
- which inevitably compels us to also consider why we are the way we are and to probe the whole notion of Self.
- How is it that we could possibly conceive and have some measure of the passage of time in our minds? It would seem that our internal clocks track the succession of ideas that parade through our minds. As John Locke put it in 1689, “…we have no perception of duration, but by considering the train of ideas that take their turns in our understandings.” As we noodle on ideas and our minds meter out thoughts, we somehow come to understand the natural lapses of time associated with this process. Should the normal pace of our ideas be interrupted or our ability to generate ideas be thwarted or retired, our concept of time loses reliability. Thus, if the normal flow of ideas changes rates from what we were previously accustomed, our sense of time is off, as is our timing. This not only distort memories of our past, I believe the timing issue negatively affects balance and depth perception… common problems for those in memory care facilities. That is, they fall – physically and mentally.
- Which means, in writing this, I have unfortunately discovered that I’m some 330 years late to the party.
- Technically, “doubt”, then “thinking”.
- We must think our future selves incredibly ambitious, if she is to accomplish all that we have planned for her. For many, the gap between future expectations from our past Self and current reality leads to the sobering realization that the multifaceted, grandiose plans of our expected future lives, curated from our youth, no longer have sufficient time to mature into reality. It’s as if we innately have more than one life within us and yet, we are only gifted one to live. I suppose this is the birth of a mid-life crisis for some, a season of admitting to ourselves that some of our expected futures no longer have time to mature, and the realization that some may never be birthed. It is natural that some versions of our imagined futures must succumb to the others. As we prune, we must come to terms that some options are no longer viable. In other words, we are forced to become sensible, sagacious realists… and who wants that?
- Because the Past we remember often isn’t the Past, but a version of it… our own version of it. If it differs from the actual Past too much, we risk developing a warped sense of Self.
- Or, more accurately, our perception of our Past.
- John Locke, one of history’s great thinkers, provides a fantastically rich definition of memory, “…the mind has a power in many cases to revive perceptions, which it has once had, with this additional perception annexed to them, that it has had them before.” An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  Book 2. Chapter 10. Section 2.
- Every experience logged in memory becomes a measure we write into the symphony that we play in our heads about ourselves, in which there are interplaying movements and motifs, harmonies and dissonance, rhythms and syncopations, fortes and rests, da capos and codas.
- To me, this is the link between Locke (Self from memories) and Descartes (Self from thinking).
- Again, John Locke adds beautiful color to this point, “Memory… is of so great moment, that where it is wanting, all the rest of our faculties are in a great measure useless: and we in our thoughts, reasonings, and knowledge, could not proceed beyond present objects, were it not for the assistance of our memories…”. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.  Book 2. Chapter 10. Section 8.
- Without knowledge of our past, knowing where we have been is void and knowing where to go next is surely problematic. Without the capacity to record experiences in memory, as in the case of Alzheimer’s, there can be limited concept of Self, except for the bits that remain accessible for a season.
- This made sense when I wrote it… less so when I read it.
- Which is different from a more existential “discovery of Self”.
- Conceptual credit to John Locke An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 2, Chapter 1, Section 8 (1689).
- Although it is anything but linear because life is unimaginably complex, non-linear and asymmetrical… but this first-order approximation is how we create some semblance of Order from the Chaos.
- “…there seems to be a constant decay of all our ideas, even of those which are struck deepest, and in minds the most retentive; so that if they be not sometimes renewed by repeated exercise of the senses, or reflection on those kind of objects which at first occasioned them, the print wears out, and at last there remains nothing to be seen. Thus the ideas, as well as children, of our youth, often die before us: and our minds represent to us those tombs, to which we are approaching; where though the brass and marble remain, yet the inscriptions are effaced by time, and the imagery moulders away.” – John Locke. I had to include this quote, if only for the beauty of the prose.
- Man’s Search for Meaning. (1959)
- Apart from that in the collective memories of others, especially of loved ones. And even there, it is fleeting and ephemeral.
- A prayer for my father and for all those who suffer with him in the final stages of Alzheimer’s.
A very good, book-worthy read. Being an existentialist at times makes this really turn up the furnace of thought.
Thanks Patrick. I appreciate the feedback.
I love this final part. Difficult topic. Beautifully written! One might begin to think you were a liberal arts major. 😉
Thank you Christy… I’m suppressing my inner engineer.
I’m with Patrick. I think you have the basis for a book.
Dries – thank you for the comment and encouragement… much appreciated!