【Christopher Mccarroll】Remembering From the Outside

Remembering From the Outside
Christopher Mccarroll

This article includes Mccarroll’s four posts co-titled ‘Remembering From the outside’ on THE BRAINS BLOG.

I want to begin by thanking John Schwenkler for the invitation to share these posts with you about my book Remembering From the Outside: Personal Memory and the Perspectival Mind (Oxford University Press).

An Introduction

Towards the end of the 19th Century, a number of psychologists noted a curious feature of personal memory. Writing about varieties of visual mental imagery and the fact that some people “have the power of combining in a single perception more than can be seen at any one moment by the two eyes”, Francis Galton noted that a “fourth class of persons have the habit of recalling scenes, not from the point of view whence they were observed, but from a distance, and they visualise their own selves as actors on the mental stage” (1883/1907: 68-69). What Galton is describing here is a particular way that many people have of remembering the personal past. Such people remember events from-the-outside, seeing themselves in the remembered scene.

Such perspectival memories were also noted by the French psychologists Victor and Catherine Henri in their study into earliest childhood memories. And, referencing the work by the Henris, Sigmund Freud mentioned this shift in mnemonic point of view when developing his theory of “screen memories”. Screen memories are typically childhood memories that hide or screen desires or fantasies the subject may have. Yet, importantly, even though Freud’s description of an example of a screen memory involves such a detached point of view, it is not this perspectival element that makes it a screen. Memories in which one sees oneself from-the-outside are not necessarily screen memories. Rather, for Freud, screen memories and memories in which one sees oneself in the remembered scene are two separate pieces of evidence that most, if not all, of our childhood memories have been ‘worked over’ and modified.

In the language of modern memory research on episodic or autobiographical memory such images are known as ‘observer memories’ (or ‘observer perspectives’). In observer perspective memories one sees oneself in the remembered scene from-the-outside. In contrast, memories which maintain the original internal point of view, as if seeing the event through one’s own eyes, are called ‘field perspectives’.

There are, of course, individual and even cultural differences in the form our memories take. Some people may exclusively recall events from a field perspective, others from an observer perspective, or typically a mix of both perspectives. Indeed, some people may even lack conscious access to (visual) mental imagery, a phenomenon known as aphantasia. Nonetheless, in general, experimental evidence suggests that field perspectives are more common, with observer perspectives occurring in a substantial minority of memories. Observer perspectives are more prevalent, however, in certain circumstances. Older memories, such as when adults recall events from their childhoods, tend to be recalled from an observer perspective. Observer perspectives are also more common when there is a high degree of emotional self-awareness involved during the original event, such as giving a public talk, or for people who score highly on measures of public self-consciousness and hence are aware of themselves as objects of social appraisal. There is also evidence to suggest that the perspectives are not fixed: a single episode of retrieval may involve both points of view, either by switching back and forth or, intriguingly, holding both perspectives simultaneously.

Despite these consistent empirical findings, however, a number of doubts and misconceptions still linger, especially concerning the status of observer perspectives in memory. How can I see myself in a memory from a point of view that I didn’t occupy at the time of the original event? Can observer memories be genuine? Implicit in these worries seems to lie a preservationist view of memory. Much of the scepticism about remembering from-the-outside stems from such a view, where memory is thought to preserve perceptual content and stores static items for later retrieval. Although not framed in the language of field and observer perspectives, the notion that memory must preserve one’s original point of view, a field perspective, is perhaps traceable to Aristotle’s theory of memory. On one interpretation a memory image is, for Aristotle, a copy of one’s view of the past scene.

In contrast, much recent work in scientific and philosophical studies on memory stresses the reconstructive nature of memory, emphasising that memory is not fixed and immutable but flexible. Contrary to strict preservationism, the reconstructive paradigm offers a multicausal view of the influences on memory content. Memory content can be changed or new content can be generated, often due to the context of retrieval. In this sense, Freud’s insight that observer perspective images have been worked over fits with the dominant view in modern psychology that episodic memory is dynamic and open to change. Memory not only draws on information from the past event, but is alive to the context of the present moment. On some views reconstructive memory can still maintain an appropriate casual connection to the past, which is often taken to distinguish memory from imagination. On other views, however, the empirical evidence on the reconstructive nature of remembering may even undermine the difference between memory and imagination.

Yet, even if memory is malleable and open to change, the perspectival feature of observer memories is a curious one and it raises many questions. Can there be genuine memories which are recalled from an observer perspective? How can past events be recalled from a detached perspective? How is it that the self is observed? And how can we account for the self-presence of such memories? In my book I provide an account of observer perspectives which answers questions such as these, and in this series of posts I sketch my answers to some of them. Having outlined some of the background to observer memories and explained some of the motivation for scepticism about remembering from-the-outside here, in the next post I deal head-on with these worries, answering objections to the claim that observer memories can be genuine.

An Anomalous Point of View?

Remembering from-the-outside involves adopting a point of view that one didn’t occupy at the time of the original event. In this sense, the visual perspective of observer memories seems somehow ‘anomalous’. Here I articulate two related objections to genuine memories being recalled from-the-outside: (1) the argument from perceptual impossibility; and (2) the argument from perceptual preservation.

The argument from perceptual impossibility claims that because it is impossible to see oneself from-the-outside at the time of the original experience, one cannot have a memory in which one sees oneself from-the-outside: one cannot (genuinely) remember from an observer perspective. Relatedly, the argument from perceptual preservation holds that memory must (broadly) preserve the content of the previous perceptual experience. Even if we concede that the notion of exact preservation is too strict, it is sometimes suggested that genuine memory may lose content over time (through forgetting), but nothing must be added to the content of memory. Because observer perspectives seem to have an added representation of the self, a representation that was not available at the time of encoding, then, so the argument goes, they cannot be genuine memories.

Both these worries stem from a broadly preservationist view of memory. The general idea behind them is that the content that is retrieved from memory is not the same as the content that was encoded in memory. According to these two arguments, observer perspectives cannot satisfy preservationist conditions placed on the context of memory encoding.

The first step in responding to these arguments is to note that memory is inherently (re)constructive. Empirical evidence shows that memories are open to change, and that their content is not fixed at the point of encoding. Memory is a creative process. It is important to note, however, that (re)constructive processes operate at different points in the memory process. There are constructive processes that operate during memory encoding; and there are reconstructive processes that operate at memory retrieval. As such, I suggest that there are two ways of responding to the arguments from perceptual impossibility and perceptual preservation. First, by suggesting that observer perspectives are reconstructed at the moment of retrieval; second, to argue that observer perspectives may be constructed during perceptual experience at the time of encoding.

The first approach shows that the context of retrieval can affect the content of memory. Information that was originally encoded into a field perspective memory can be reconstructed into an observer image. One way of responding to the argument from perceptual impossibility is to say that observer perspectives are reconstructed when there is an evaluative, emotional, or epistemic gap that opens up between the past and the present (Goldie 2012). This occurs when what one now thinks, feels, or knows about a past event is different to what one then thought, felt, or knew about the same event. When such an ‘ironic gap’ opens up observer perspectives may be reconstructed. In such cases it is one’s present knowledge or emotion at retrieval, the way one now views the past event, that is driving the reconstruction of the observer image. This means that in order to see yourself in memory you don’t need to have seen yourself during the past event.

One may also respond to the argument from perceptual preservation by focusing on the context of retrieval. There are good arguments to show that the (re)constructive nature of remembering means that new content may be generated by reconstructive processes at (or before) retrieval. Because memory often, perhaps typically, involves the incorporation of information that was not encoded during the past event, genuine memories may involve the generation of content. Therefore, even if observer perspectives involve an additional representation of the self, they can still count as genuine memories.

Observer perspectives are often explained precisely by appealing to the reconstructive nature of memory at retrieval. Indeed, they are typically thought to involve more reconstruction than field perspectives, where the latter are understood to more or less preserve one’s original point of view on the event. Yet, given that there is sometimes an (implicit) association between reconstruction in memory and error or distortion (cf. Campbell 2014), this seems to leave us with a view that observer perspectives are somehow less accurate. As such, focusing on the context of retrieval in answering the objections to observer memories may not be completely satisfactory. Someone sceptical of observer perspective memories may simply conclude that reconstruction at retrieval still involves a degree of invention. If one says that memory is reconstructive and that new mnemonic content can be generated, then the sceptic can still reject observer perspectives because this additional content is a sign of false memory. And, even if observer perspectives are not thought of as outright false memories, they are still often seen as distorted memories because of the change in the visual perspective that occurs after the event.

In order to fully answer the sceptic’s concerns, and in order to better understand observer perspectives, one needs to look beyond the context of retrieval. A more complete understanding of observer perspectives, and hence a better understanding of personal memory, requires an understanding of how the context of encoding is important for the content of memory.

Memory is alive not only to the context of retrieval, but also to the various sources of information and the context in which the event took place. I suggest that, at least sometimes, the context of the perceptual experience can encourage us to adopt an external perspective on ourselves at the time of the original event. Thoughts, emotions, semantic knowledge, etc., which were part of the original experience, can be used to construct an image from an observer perspective. We can, in a sense, use this information to get outside of ourselves. This is not to suggest that such observer perspectives are memories of out-of-body experiences. You don’t have to literally see yourself during the perceptual experience in order to see yourself in a memory of that experience. Observer perspective memories are much more quotidian than this, and they are constructed from non-visual information encoded at the time of the original event. When you remember an event from an observer perspective you are not remembering seeing yourself at the time of the past event, you are simply remembering that past event. In this sense, field and observer perspectives are different ways of remembering the same past event.

The idea that observer perspectives can be formed from non-visual information at the time of the past experience is one that requires some cashing out. It requires an account of what it means for the self to be represented in memory from an external point of view. I turn to a discussion of these issues in the next post.

Spatial Perspectival Memories

The literature on observer perspective memory typically holds that it is a phenomenon that is dependent on reconstructive processes at the moment of retrieval. On such an understanding all visual memory imagery would be encoded from a field perspective, and the change to an observer perspective would occur at retrieval. This line of thought may explain why older memories are often recalled from an observer perspective. Information that was initially encoded as a field perspective becomes semanticised over time, where contextual details are lost, and is eventually reconstructed from an observer perspective. But if one acknowledges the wholly (re)constructive nature of memory one must also consider the context of encoding. One must also consider the possibility that some experiences are encoded into observer memories.

The constructive processes involved in memory encoding are thought to involve selection (where only certain stimuli are encoded), abstraction (where meaning is abstracted from the information selected and some content is lost), interpretation (where relevant prior knowledge is invoked to interpret the event), and integration (in which a holistic representation is formed from the products of the selection, abstraction, and interpretation processes). Importantly, these same constructive processes will be employed in the encoding of both field and observer perspectives, but may select for the salient information in both cases. It is not the case that observer perspectives necessarily involve more construction. Perhaps most experiences will unfold while we are attending to information that is apposite for the construction of field perspective memories. But sometimes, in some circumstances, the information that has been selected, abstracted, and interpreted from an event will be integrated and encoded into an observer memory.

In such cases, observer perspectives are neither false nor distorted memories. Remembering from-the-outside may accurately reflect the content of the original experience. In essence, there may be observer perspective experiences, even though such experiences do not involve seeing oneself from-the-outside. The information used in the construction of observer memories may be non-visual, and in observer memories nothing need have been added to the content of memory.

I suggest that observer perspective memories may be constructed from information that was available at the time of the original experience. But what are these external perspectives at encoding? Observer perspectives differ from field perspectives in virtue of their spatial perspectival characteristics. In observer perspectives one sees oneself in the remembered scene from a vantage point that one did not occupy at the time of the original event. These two elements of observer perspectives—the external point of view and the self-presence of such images—are things that need to be explained.

Episodic memory is inherently spatial. The events that we remember occurred in a particular spatial context. Yet there are a number of ways in which spatial information can be used by perceptual and cognitive processes in order for the cognising agent to represent external space and navigate through it. Broadly speaking, there are two primary types of spatial representation. They may be either egocentric: locating objects in the environment from a frame of reference relative to (part of) the body. For the visual modality, the egocentric reference frame involves viewpoint-dependent representations of the visual scene. These viewpoint-dependent visual representations can be seen as analogous to field perspectives. However, there is now a wealth of evidence that spatial cognition in humans (and other animals) is based in large part on non-egocentric spatial representations. Such spatial representations are allocentric: locating objects in a frame of reference centred on some feature or object in the external environment. In the visual modality these spatial representations will be viewpoint-independent.

There are different ways of construing allocentric spatial representations, different notions of allocentric space. One way of understanding allocentric spatial representation is to think of it as involving a virtual point of view, where space would be centred from a location where there is no actual object or person. This notion of a virtual point of view is developed in an influential theory of spatial representation. On this view, the “allocentric spatial system … represents the environment from any location and includes within itself a representation of the subject-as- object” (O’Keefe 1993/1999: 44-45). In effect, there are two points of view: the current perceived one, to which a self-representation would be assigned, functioning as something like a place marker, and one which would be free to move to imaginary locations and view the scene from a different perspective. Importantly, even though the allocentric spatial system can be understood as a memory system, it can be used online as one engages in occurrent cognising of the spatial environment.

I propose that such allocentric representations may be involved in the construction of observer perspectives. In both observer perspective memories and allocentric representations there are two points of view: a representation of the self from-the-outside and a detached point of view from which one visualises oneself. Allocentric information available during perceptual experience can account for the detached point of view and the representation of the self we find in remembering from-the-outside.

But if the self-presence of observer perspectives does not involve visually perceiving oneself, how does such a representation of the self arise? How is the self-presence of observer perspective experiences constructed? Again, the answer can be found in how we process spatial information. One key idea is that spatial representations based on one sensory modality can be translated or transformed into a different modality. For example, tactile or kinaesthetic information may be translated into visual imagery. In other words, such cross-modal transformation of information can lead one to generate a visual image even without the input of visual perception: a nonvisual source of information may be translated into a visual idea of that information.

I suggest that precisely this kind of multimodal integration of information occurs in the construction of observer perspective memories. Contra the objections from the perceptual impossibility and perceptual preservation arguments (outlined in the previous post), one need not perceive oneself from-the-outside in order to have a memory in which one ‘sees’ oneself from-the-outside, and nothing need be added to the content of such memories. The external perspective and the self-presence of remembering from-the-outside can be available at the moment of encoding. Of course, this is a hypothesis, and whether observer perspectives are actually constructed in this way is ultimately an empirical question. Nonetheless, this picture fits with some influential and empirically supported theories of episodic memory, which emphasise the importance of the multimodal integration of information, including spatial information, for the construction of representations of the personal past. My claim is that this spatial information involves allocentric representations, and that this information is available at encoding.

The picture I develop is also supported from a quite different literature―work on social phobia and anxiety disorders. One model of social phobia posits that a distorted image of one’s public self plays an important role in this anxiety disorder: “while in social situations, patients experience spontaneously occurring images in which they ‘see’ themselves as if from an observer’s perspective” (Hackmann et al. 2000: 602). Crucially, though, ‘see’ in this context is not taken to refer to a direct visual perception of oneself. Rather, it is thought that “the observer perspective in social phobia is problematic because the perspective is constructed from interoceptive information such as the subjective intensity of symptoms” (Wells & Papageorgiou 1999: 658). Even though such observer perspective experiences may involve images that are inaccurate and problematic in the context of anxiety disorders and social phobias, more benign observer perspective experiences may, under the right circumstances, be available to us all.

Indeed, this way understanding observer memories, as involving, at least in some cases, observer perspective experiences, helps explain some of the empirical evidence on point of view in memory imagery. Recall, for example, that observer perspectives are more common for events that involve a high degree of emotional self-awareness, such as giving a talk in public. And some studies show that women are more likely than men to remember events from an observer perspective in general, but especially for situations in which they feel sexually objectified (Huebner & Fredrickson 1999; cf. Rice 2010). In situations like these, in which one is emotionally self-aware, the context of encoding seems to be heavily influencing the content of memory. The understanding of memory I develop helps account for this by showing the senses in which one can adopt an external perspective on oneself at the time of the original experience. For a more complete account of observer memory we must pay attention to the context of encoding as well as the context of retrieval.

I have provided a way of understanding the spatial perspectival characteristics of observer perspectives such that one can adopt an external perspective on oneself both in memory and during perceptual experience. This still leaves us with questions as to the nature of this external perspective itself. The self in observer perspectives is viewed from an external point of view. But by whom? And in what way? I provide answers to these questions in my final post.

Point of View in Visual Imagery

Theories of sensory imagination often make a distinction between first-personal or ‘subjective’ imagery, in which one views an imagined scene from-the-inside, and third-personal or ‘objective’ imagery, in which one sees oneself from-the-outside.[1] For example, if you are imagining swimming you may feel the cold and pull of the water, and perhaps visualise the ocean floor. This is the subjective case. According to Zeno Vendler, subjective imaginings involve “the representation of the experiences I would have if I were in a certain situation” (1979: 163). In contrast, in the objective case, imagining (yourself) swimming may involve visualising yourself from-the-outside, bobbing up and down in the foamy sea.

Do we really have two different types of imaginings here? Vendler thinks not. He claims that third-personal imagery is nothing but a special case of first-personal imagery: objective imagination reduces to subjective imagination. The reason for this, so the argument goes, is that objective imagery involves the experience of seeing. And, because this experience of seeing is a subjective experience, then the objective reduces to the subjective. Imagining oneself from-the-outside is really a case of imagining seeing oneself, and this imagining seeing is inherently subjective.

This way of reducing objective imagination to the subjective entails an occupied point of view within the imaginative project. Here is how François Recanati describes such objective imagination: “the subject imagines seeing himself swim in the water. In that special case the subject plays two roles: he is not only the experiencer, the person from whose point of view the scene is seen, but he is also an object in the scene. This duality enables the subject to look at himself (herself) from an external, third person point of view” (2007: 196).

The duality that Recanati envisages here is most accurately thought of as a duality within the imaginative project. Note that it is the ‘objective’ case that is described in dualistic terms: the actual real-world imaginer is so far not included in this description. If we take into account the real-world imaginer, then imagining from-the-outside necessarily involves a three-term relation between: 1) the real world imagining self, 2) an implicit self within the imaginative project doing the seeing, and 3) the self as an object in the imagined scene. Such an imaginative project actually involves three selves: the real-world self, the objective self, and the observing self. This last self is something of a fly on the wall, an oblique onlooker at the edge of the imaginative project.

I do not deny that such types of imaginings may occur. What I do deny is that such three-term relations in imagination are necessary. Further, it is this notion of an occupied point of view that partly grounds the scepticism Vendler articulates about remembering from-the-outside. For Vendler, there is no possibility of ‘objective’ memory in this sense, there is no possibility of remembering from-the-outside. On Vendler’s analysis of remembering from-the-outside, one would need a three-term relation between: 1) the actual remembering (experiencing) self, 2) the subjective (observing) self, and 3) the objective (observed) self. And this three-term relation would be involved both in the original experience and then preserved in memory. On the face of it this dissociation required during (perceptual) experience is impossible, and this fact seems to be driving the worry about remembering from-the-outside. Vendler’s conception of remembering from-the-outside brings in the notion of seeing oneself from a particular point of view: the experience of seeing from this point of view becomes an essential part of the content of memory.

I argue, in contrast, that normal observer perspective memories involve a two-term relation. Observer memories involve an unoccupied point of view. But what exactly is an unoccupied point of view? In order to answer this question, let me first pose another one. Can we visualize something that is not seen, can we visualize an unseen tree, say? The idea that one cannot visualise an unseen object seems intuitively correct, given that visualising an object is naturally taken to involve thinking of oneself as seeing that object. According to Bernard Williams, however, one need not include one’s seeing in what is visualised: the notion of oneself seeing the object is an element that can be left out of an imaginative project.

To illustrate this, Williams draws an analogy with cinematic point of view. The notion of visual perspective is relevant here, and implicit in Williams’ analysis is the thought that a point of view need not be occupied. He tells us that the point of view in film is in fact how the camera depicts the action. This point of view may reflect the visual perspective of one of the characters, but it need not do so and typically does not. Nor is the point of view of the camera in any simple sense that of the director. Yet neither can it be said, without great care at least, that the point of view of the camera is in some sense ours: we are not normally “invited to have the feeling that we are near to this castle, floating towards its top, or stealing around these lovers, peering minutely at them” (Williams 1973: 36-37). Williams considers the case of visualisation to be sufficiently similar to the case of point of view in cinematography. A visualised object will be presented from a particular point of view—say, from the front—but this point of view need not be my visual perspective; in fact, it need not be anyone’s visual perspective. In this sense, one’s seeing is not part of the content of the imagination, and one can visualise an unseen object.

Of course, Williams’ analogy between the point of view in visual imagery and in film has been subject to both criticism and support. One critique is that a film director has a degree of freedom that the imaginer does not share. But I think that this is too restrictive for imagination. The director of cinema intends to create either an immersive or detached representation, and uses special editing or filming techniques to do so. But the imaginer can also create either detached or immersive mental imagery by being in control of the intended imaginative project. The experience of seeing need not be part of the content of an imagining. Indeed, in a similar vein to imagination, the literature on field and observer perspectives in memory shows that most people can intentionally switch perspectives. There is often a degree of freedom in how we remember the past.

Using these insights from imagination, I propose that thinking about the point of view in visual imagery as unoccupied should be applied to observer perspectives in personal memory. In recalling an event from an observer perspective one sees oneself in the memory, and this past scene is depicted from a particular point of view, but the point of view upon the remembered scene need is not occupied: it is not a point of view within the remembered scene. The experience of seeing oneself is not part of the content of remembering from-the-outside. Observer memories are (typically) recalled from unoccupied points of view. Observer perspectives involve a two-term relation between 1) the remembering self, and 2) the remembered self that is viewed from-the-outside.

The idea of an unoccupied point of view—and the two-term relation this involves—arguably explains the phenomenology of observer memories: the experience of seeing is not part of the content of the memory, and this is why such images present “from somewhere” rather than “to someone” (Gregory 2013: 204). Observer perspectives do not present as memories of having seen oneself at the time of the experience from an external point of view. Part of the reason why observer perspectives present in such an ordinary way, why they are so quotidian, and why the detached point of view is not often noticed, is because the remembered scene is viewed from an unoccupied point of view.

In remembering from-the-outside there is no implicit self whose experience of seeing is part of the content of memory. There is a sense, then, that the term ‘observer memory’ is misleading. When remembering from-the-outside there is no observer within the memory.


[1] The terms ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ are arguably imprecise, but as they are used in the literature I engage with here I continue to use them. Indeed, even the term ‘from-the-inside’ may need careful unpacking.


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