My first actual episodic childhood memory feels quite different. I can put myself back in that scene, in which I am three years old, floating under water, sinking actually. I am heading toward a vent at the bottom of a pool. I notice my body being pulled toward it. I am not scared of drowning. I have no idea what that even means. Rather, I am filled with wonderment and lightness. Suddenly a woman sweeps me into her arms. She is wearing a swimming cap and goggles. I see my dad in the water, rushing over to us.
“I just turned around or something and all of the sudden you were gone,” my father says, when I ask him about this event 35 years later.
“Was there a lady that picked me up?”
“She just kind of held you,” he says, “or yelled at me or something.”
“Did she have a cap on?”
“That I can’t remember.”
From what my dad tells me, it was 1981. He had taken me on a road trip in his 1965 Mustang from Illinois to New York, while my mother stayed behind with my newborn brother. We were headed to meet his parents, who were flying in from Japan. “I strapped you in the front seat,” he recalls. We rode the whole 13-and-a-half-hour drive that way. After we arrived at the New York hotel, he sat me on the side of the pool and went for a quick swim nearby.
I hold in my memory hundreds of poignant impressions of my father from my childhood—fishing, camping, tumbling, watching him attempt to do the running man at a birthday party. I recall segments of some. I have photos of others. Yet my earliest episodic memory is not his finest parenting moment. Despite this, I know that he cherished me, instilling values that stuck. Thinking about this today makes me reconsider the role that episodic memories in particular play in the foundation of our personalities. Perhaps we have given this kind of recollection power too much credit for its role in shaping our personalities, in making us who we are.
In his book, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” Oliver Sacks quotes Luis Buñuel: “Life without memory is no life at all…our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.” This has long been a commonly held belief, also spread by philosopher John Locke, who maintained that memory is self. Some research is now beginning to question this notion.
Not long ago, I interviewed and wrote about the first person ever identified by scientists with a condition called severely deficient autobiographical memory. She has no episodic memories. Yet she maintains a clear personality, sense of humor, set of beliefs, morals, hobbies, and pleasures. She lives a full life.
Last year, researchers from Yale University and the University of Arizona published a study in Psychological Science proclaiming that morality is more central to identity than memory. The authors studied patients with frontotemporal dementia (in which damage to the brain’s prefrontal cortex can lead to dishonesty and socially unacceptable behavior), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which affects muscle control), and Alzheimer’s disease (which robs a person of memory). The research found that as long as moral capacity is not impaired, the self persists, even when memory is compromised. “These results speak to significant and longstanding questions about the nature of identity, questions that have occupied social scientists, neurologists, philosophers, and novelists alike,” the authors write.