Ying-Tung Lin & Vilius Dranseika

What is the relationship between memory and imagination? What are the differences and similarities between them? These have long been topics of interest for philosophers both ancient and modern, and recent neuroimaging findings have brought a new perspective into the discussion (Buckner & Carroll, 2007; De Brigard, 2017; Schacter & Addis, 2007). Various views have been proposed to differentiate between memory and imagination, e.g., views that focus on the differences in vivacity, factivity, causes. Here, we attempt to draw attention to a perspective that has yet to be explored: the perspective of studies on self-consciousness.

Imagination is a crucial form of human freedom, as it allows our experience to go beyond what actually happens and has happened. In contrast to imagination, memory is constrained by what has been experienced by the subject in the past. Hopkins (2018) therefore characterizes remembering as a kind of imagining that is controlled by the past. However, it is not just what is remembered but also how it is remembered that is under such constraint. To put it another way, in order to be able to “re-experience” the past as one’s own past, the past also constrains how the self-experience appears in memory. Here, we discuss how imagination and episodic memory can differ with respect to self-consciousness.

To begin with, it is debatable whether it is possible to form an episode of imagination in which oneself is not included. That is, can we mentally simulate the conscious experience of a world in which we are not present as selves (Metzinger, 2011)? However, undoubtedly there cannot be episodic memory without self, as episodic memory is usually defined as personally experienced episodes (Tulving, 1972), the conscious reliving of a past experience (Tulving, 1985) or mental time travel into the past (Suddendorf & Corballis, 1997). Here, it is implicitly assumed—yet not always explicitly explicated—that it is my own past experience that is consciously re-lived and my own past to which I mentally time travel. Self-consciousness is a crucial component in episodic memory that in our view is underexplored.

Second, in imagination, there is a question as to whether one can imagine oneself to be another and what such imagining consists in (Ninan, 2016; Williams, 1973). In contrast, given how episodic memory is defined, it cannot involve such simulation of being someone else. However, note that the idea of quasi-memory suggests the theoretical possibility of remembering past experiences as one’s own, while they are in fact not one’s own (Shoemaker, 1970). This—remembering past experiences of someone else—is distinct from remembering being someone else. The debates discussed above remain far from resolved, and as such the issue of whether these differences exist is yet to be settled. However, the fact that these debates exist in respect of imagination but not episodic memory indicates some differences between them.

In addition to the possibilities of no-self and being someone else, there may be other differences between remembering one’s past event and imagining a counterfactual scenario involving one’s self. What are the similarities and differences between self-experience in episodic memory and in imagination? Either a field or an observer perspective can be adopted in remembering and imagination. When taking a field perspective, one’s origin of visual perspective is located within one’s body, similar to the way the subject normally perceives the world and his/her own body. In contrast, when taking an observer perspective, a distinct vantage point—often outside one’s body—is adopted to view the simulated world and one’s own body. Various factors are shown to affect perspective-taking. In particular, there is a connection between perspectives and the personal assessment of self-change. It is found that the (in)compatibility between one’s current self-concepts (e.g., religious beliefs, political attitudes, and the nature of their relationships) and the actions visualized in memory or imagination affect the perspective adopted: Conflicting actions tend to be viewed from an observer perspective, whereas compatible actions are viewed from a field perspective (Libby and Eibach, 2011). The adoption of perspective in memory and imagination seems to be linked to the (in)compatibility between the imaginary or mnemonic content and the current autobiographical and emotional content.

It is worth mentioning that regarding perspective-taking when imagining being someone else, say, Napoleon, it is argued that it is not possible to entertain such imagination from an observer perspective (McCarroll, 2019; Ninan, 2007; Williams, 1966). The reason provided is that—compared with images of what would be seen from Napoleon’s field perspective—external images of Napoleon from an observer perspective do not “have enough me in them” to give rise to the imagination of being Napoleon. As for imagining or remembering oneself from an observer perspective, the content will involve internal perspectival modalities other than vision which allows one to “have enough me in them”. It is what is lacking when imagining being someone else from the observer perspective and what gives rise to psychological continuity or a sense of identity in imagination as well as in episodic memory.

Observer-perspective memory and imagination introduce further complexity in self-experience. In an observer-perspective memory or imagination, one’s first-person perspective is dissociated from the location of one’s remembered or imagined body. It evokes the question of how a sense of identity—the experience of being the same person as the one remembered or the one imagined—is formed in episodic memory and imagination (Fernández, 2018; Lin, 2018, 2020; McCarroll, 2018). How does one identify with oneself in an observer-perspective memory and imagination? Which self does one identify with: the one observing or the one observed in the scene? This issue offers a way of understanding the potential roles of the first-person perspective and embodiment in identification (Lin, 2018).

Our recent study on self-experience in imagination (Lin & Dranseika, submitted) provides some empirical data to explore felt identification in imagination. In our study, participants were asked to perform an observer-perspective imagination task (e.g., to imagine running on a deserted beach) and were then asked about their felt identification: whether it feels like they were (1) the one observing the scene from an external vantage point, (2) the one inside the scene (e.g., the person running on a deserted beach), (3) the one observing the scene and the one inside the scene at the same time, (4) switching between being the one observing the scene and the one inside the scene, or (5) other. We found that while there are different ways to identify with oneself in an observer-perspective imagination, almost half of the participants indicated that it felt like they were the one observing the scene from an external vantage point, approximately a quarter of the participants felt like they were both the one observing the scene and the one inside the scene, and very few indicated that it felt like they were the one inside the scene or they were switching between being the one observing the scene and the one inside the scene. Our study indicates the variety regarding identification in imagination by revealing how identification is associated with or dissociated from the first-person perspective or phenomenal property of embodiment.

Concerning the felt identification in observer-perspective memory, while it has never been studied, the pattern of identification may be different from what is observed in imagination. McCarroll (2018) argues that in episodic memory, the rememberer identifies with the one inside the scene and that the observer perspective is an unoccupied point of view—that is, the scene is merely presented from a certain point of view without the experiencer having had the experience of seeing as a character. However, there are other reasons to support other forms of identification (see Fernández, 2018; Lin, 2018, 2020).

As discussed above, perspective-taking in imagination and memory is constrained by the (in)compatibility between the imagery or mnemonic content and current autobiographical and emotional states (Libby and Eibach, 2011). In addition, imaginary and mnemonic contents affect one’s sense of identity in observer-perspective imagination and memory (McCarroll, 2019; Ninan, 2007; Williams, 1966). We question whether felt identification in observer-perspective memory and imagination may be similarly constrained. Furthermore, is there a difference in the constraints posed on felt identification in observer-perspective memory and imagination? There are at least two reasons to conjecture that the (in)compatibility between the mnemonic content and one’s autobiographical and emotional states shape one’s felt identification to a larger extent than is the case in imagination. First, memory is constrained by the past. Second, imagination does not require a (strong) sense of psychological continuity. Thus, a difference in felt identification in imagination and memory may be flexibility—the ease of identifying with a different target. As previously introduced, the diversity of identification in observer-perspective imagination across individuals was found. We suspect that such diversity may also be present across episodes of imagination within the same individual, and that it may be less flexible in observer-perspective episodic memory since it is likely to be more constrained by the (in)compatibility mentioned above. That is, we may have a more fixed target of identification in observer-perspective episodic memory—either the one observing the scene or the one in the scene—constrained by the actual rememberer’s current situation (e.g., emotional needs); on the other hand, in imagination, with less influence from such constraint, it may be more subject to change. For instance, one may be able to easily change which target to identify with or even voluntarily identify with any target in imagination. There may be such freedom in imagination, which is absent in episodic memory. However, this is purely conjecture on our part at this stage. More empirical studies on identification in imagination and episodic memory are required to test our hypothesis.

Here, we point out that with respect to self-experience, there are several ways in which memory and imagination differ. One of the key differences might be freedom or flexibility. Imagination not only offers counterfactual scenarios but also enables our selves to be variously presented in such experience—imagining oneself as someone else, imagining from a different perspective, and while adopting an observer perspective, identifying with different targets. It, however, remains to be seen whether some of these dimensions of variation in self-consciousness are in fact unique to imagination.

A scholarly blog devoted to the study of imagination


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Vilius Dranseika a PhD candidate at the Centre for Philosophy of Memory, Grenoble Alpes University, France, and a researcher at the Institute of Philosophy & Interdisciplinary Centre for Ethics, Jagiellonian University, Poland, and Institute of Asian and Transcultural Studies & Institute of Philosophy, Vilnius University, Lithuania. His research is focused on psychological underpinnings of philosophical concepts and theories.