“Am I the same person now that I am sober as I was when I was still drinking?” asked a new friend who had been sober for a few years. She said that she felt like a totally different person and she felt as if she had a drinking-self and a non-drinking self. Her question struck me on several levels. I myself am a recovering alcoholic and had often asked myself a version of this question. When I look back on my drinking days—on what I was doing, thinking, and feeling—it almost seems as if I am watching someone else’s life. In a world of high definition video, I experience my memories like a grainy and jumpy film strip popular in the 1960s and 1970s. But it is me and these are my experiences and stories. It is my life and it is my self. In asking the question, “Am I the same person,” I often want the answer to be a resounding No. I still feel some guilt, shame, embarrassment, and regret at some of the things I remember doing. All of the things I do not remember because I was a regular black out drinker would probably cause me more grief and shame. While I can imagine some of the things I did, fact is stranger than fiction so that just makes me cringe all the harder. But then again, I would not be the person I am now doing the work I am without having had all those experiences. So I do want to be the answer to be a resounding “yes, I am the same person.”
When my friend asked this question, I was teaching a class in modern (1600-1800) philosophy and we were reading John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). One question with which philosophers were grappling at the time was what unifies a person such that his identity maintains continuity and thus remains the same over time. What ties it all together? One answer Locke offers is memories. Our memories are the ties that bind each of us as a whole. Memories are like the shrink wrap around our consciousness that make each of us have or be a self. Locke claims that a person’s identity doesn’t extend to that which he does not remember. The conclusion is that a person who has no memories of his past has no identity.
The question about the relationship between memory and identity is one that still puzzles philosophers. And now science is manipulating memories, especially those that focus on cues to use alcohol or drugs. In a two-step process, one first needs to “unlearn” an association between a cue and a craving. This makes the association extinct. The second step is to recondition or rewrite the meanings of cues so that they do not cause cravings, which in turn may cause a person not to relapse.
Locke (who was a physician at a time when medical science was not yet its own freestanding specialization as it is today) would wonder what happens to a person’s identity when memories are manipulated and rewritten in this kind of way. Put in a more contemporary way: Is this the equivalent of a psychic photoshopping? With those changes, does a person’s continuity of identity somehow have a gap or interruption? Obviously, gaps happen all the time for various reasons. But are there some gaps or some number of gaps that somehow undermine a person’s continuity of identity or how one thinks of her identity?
Locke clearly gets something right that our identities are (largely) a matter of what we remember. Remembering is not just a cognitive process though, and we experience memories in different ways. At times it is like watching the filmstrip, and at others, it is far more visceral. The body holds many memories; we experience and live them at times. For some addicts, memories of what we were like when using help to keep us sober. Yes, part of those memories may be the cues and the cravings. But experiencing them—even for a fleeting moment—can prompt one to recommit to her sobriety as opposed to relapsing. One may recommit to her identity as a sober person. This is a point to keep in mind as these “memory rewriting” approaches gain more traction.