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Ever wondered how it would feel to lose part of your body (for instance, a leg) or some vital body functions (diabetes, blindness)? I would say: yes, you have. But have you ever wondered about who would do the wondering? Just think of it: if we incrementally were stripped of our functions, wouldn’t we seize to be “us” at some point? Some people would argue for emotions, especially empathy, as being the arbiter here, other would simple say: it’s the brain, stupid! (Pun intended.) I beg to differ, and I even have a big name on my side: Richard Dawkins. He wrote a short opinion piece about a conceptual crutch that seemingly serves us well, but that we urgently should dispose of: essentialism.

Essentialism “is the view that, for any specific entity (such as an animal, a group of people, a physical object, a concept), there is a set of attributes which are necessary to its identity and function.” Asked the introductory question of this blog post, an essentialist would argue for a binary scale: either we are “us,” or we are not (since we do not posses the “necessary attributes”). Dawkins’s argument is that the “binarity” of this scale does not represent what we are, heck what any life form is. One of the problems he does not cover is that we often don’t even agree on what those “necessary attributes” are (see above). If we throw the self out with the bath water are we then loosing something? Might it actually make us blind to what we become, because we just see it a less than what we were before? Before I get to this question let me quickly discuss why essentialism actually falls short of reality.

We are the outcome of the process of evolution, and one necessary condition for evolution to work is variation within a species. If you think of someone of the same sex as you, you have to admit that the two of you are different: different height, different complexion, different affinity to sunlight, different appetite, different resistance to the newest version of the flu virus, and so on. These differences are not flaws in our reproduction process, they are exactly what you would expect from a life form that is the product of Darwinian evolution. Variability is a necessary condition for evolution to work at all. Therefore it is quite difficult to define the necessary attributes for being human.

Throwing away the crutch of essentialism is scary, since we immediately face ethical questions we have not mentally been prepared to tackle. One question is that of animal person-hood: if we vary a lot as a species and if we even call someone human when that might go against our intuition (for instance, is a baby born without a brain, “fully” human?), how come that we see other animals, for instances chimpanzees, as completely different, as not deserving of protection of their person-hood? Just because they don’t have the essence of being human? If your are interested in the philosophical adventures that abandoning essentialism opens up for us, I suggest to start with Singer’s writing on ethics, for instance his seminal book on animal rights. Abandoning essentialism does not need to be accompanied by fear, it can actually invite us to curiosity, to open thinking, to encountering something new, to reconsidering who we are with an open mid. Let me demonstrate this bold claim of mine with an example. And yes, this is, at last, where Molly enters the picture.

I recently watched Remember Sunday, a Hallmark-Hall-of-Fame film, and I have to say that I not only found it entertaining and touching, but it even made me think intensely about how it would be to not be me. Could I, for instance, love somebody without remembering my love interest? I know this sounds like a complete paradox (benign interpretation), or even like complete nonsense (not so benign interpretation), but I am serious about this question. Seriously.

Remember Sunday tells the story of Gustaf and Molly. Gustaf Gillenwater is a former astrophysicist who had to step down from his position at Mount Wilson Observatory and who had to return to his home town New Orleans after suffering from an aneurysm that left him with anterograde amnesia. He begins his life every day anew when he wakes up, studying notes and crib sheets to reposition himself in the present day. During the next night he loses all his new memories, d has to start anew. In some sense, this is the polar opposite of Groundhog Day.

Lets look at the question: if I do not remember a person, how could I love that person when I met her/him again? Remember Sunday does not offer an explicit explanation for how this could be possible, but it nonetheless it answers the question in the affirmative. Luckily for us (and the film), there is actually some science to back up their position.

Undoubtedly, memory is an integral part of who we are, and that is, for instance, why diseases such a Alzheimer’s are so scary to us. We are afraid of loosing our identity with our memories, but I think this is too simple a view, and in this border area of human identity there are plentiful scientific treasures to be discovered, and the related scientific insights actually endow us with a richer, more appreciative understanding of how complex we are, and that there is often is a beauty in that which is radically different from us as we are right now. Loosing parts of us does not automatically imply that we lose our essence, and essentialism might actually make us blind to us what we are actually losing. Let me expand on this by looking at romantic love. Our intuition tells us that our memory is both necessary for our identity (who we are) and for many functions, among them romantic love. But is this “essentialist” intuition of ours actually warranted? In order to answer this we need to look at what it actually means to lose one’s memory.

The simplest way of loosing memory is to lose all or part of our past memory, which is called retrograde amnesia. There are many films that use this kind of memory loss, not only as a plot device, as, for instance, in The Bourne Identity, but for a journey into who we are. Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas meditates about how to regain a past that has been lost and The Vow tells the story of how to regain shared love after our partner has lost all our memories of us. Films also investigate the positive potential of retrograde amnesia, for which Regarding Henry is an example. Here, a selfish, unsympathetic lawyer is reborn as a kinder, more accepting person after having lost his memory and almost everything that defined him before: his career.

In the case of retrograde amnesia, our past is lost and thus a “point fixe” from which to define who we are, and what we are. But what if we could retain the past but be barred from the future? This sounds counter-intuitive, since we cannot remember the future, so how could we lose our memory of the future? However, there is a medical condition that results in something similar: anterograde amnesia, which stands for the inability to form new memories. The past before the onset of anterograde amnesia and the present remain, but all new memories are lost (sometimes within minutes, sometimes over night). This medical condition is not as frequently used in art as is retrograde amnesia, but when it is, the examples can be quite stunning. One prime example is Memento, in which the hero is lost in the nowhere land of “now,” and he seems to be incapable of forming human relationships and is consumed by a mission of revenge, the origins of which he does not remember, and which turns him almost into an automation. But this is not an inevitable outcome of anterograde amnesia, as we find out in Remember Sunday.

Gustaf in Remember Sunday sounds like a very unlikely candidate for romance, but, against all odds, a very sweet but also mellow romance between him and Molly sprouts. But how does this work? After all, Gustaf does not remember Molly, how could he be in love with her even after he has lost his memory from the previous day and the days before? He has lost the essence of the previous day! Yes, if he likes her today, it sounds reasonable that he also would like her the next day when he, seemingly, meets her for the first time. That is actually Gustaf’s theory, namely that he falls in love with Molly every single day. An alternative explanation would be that he simply reacts to Molly’s love for him. After all, love is contagious. 🙂 But is this really a strong explanation? Maybe the film just pulls this out of thin air in order to deliver the romance that is expected from a Hallmark film. Also, is this really romantic love. Infatuation: yes; romantic love: rather not.

What has science to say about this? Could Gustaf actually entertain a growing affection for Molly?

The answer to this lies in the question of what we mean when we say that Gustaf cannot retain his memories from the day past. After all, memory is not a monolithic thing. Does anterograde amnesia really imply that all of Gustaf’s memories disappear every night? The answer is no, but even a revised picture does not seem to offer much hope for Gustaf and Molly, i.e. that they will grow together as a couple. The current state of research seems to indicate that our declarative memory, which reflects cognitive memories, actually breaks down into two subsets: episodic memory and semantic memory. Episodic memory is the total sum of our autobiographical information that possesses a temporal and/or spatial context. For instance, what we ate for dinner yesterday, and where. Semantic memory involves factual information with no such association (language, history, geography, etc.). In Gustaf’s case he at least has lost his episodic short-time memory, but his semantic memory might still be working since he seems to continue his scientific work. But that does not help him with remembering Molly.

It also is the case that patients with anterograde amnesia can form some rudimentary procedural memory (for instance, of how to ride a bicycle), but even that does not offer a remedy to Gustaf not remembering Molly.

So science does not come to the rescue, it might seem.

But maybe there is yet another type of memory: emotional memory?

Harvard researcher Dan Gilbert had noticed that test students changed their minds about what photograph they liked if they had the chance to keep a less favoured photograph with them for a while. After a while, the students liked the photograph they were able to keep more than their original favourite. Where this study gets very interesting is when Gilbert extended this study to patients suffering from anterograde amnesia. Even they liked photographs and paintings more if they had been exposed to them for an extended period. This is big news! Remember, these patients were unable to remember that they had had ever seen these art objects, nor that the had been able to keep them for some time. Nevertheless, they had grown to like the initially less-liked art object more, and that without adding the object to their episodic, nor their semantic memory. They liked something more and more, although they could not remember it! This is from where a potential explanation for Gustaf’s and Molly’s evolving romance emerges: Gustaf has strong feelings for Molly, and research indicates that he may be able to remember his love for Molly (emotional memory) while not being able to remember her face, her voice, nor her name. What he will remember though, is his feelings for her. So, in some sense, Gustaf actually might remember Molly.

What this example demonstrates is that impairments like anterograde amnesia completely change us, but it also demonstrates that we need to look twice, we lose something, but it is not what we perceive as our essence. It is dangerous to claim that something is essentially “us,” that we need a certain property (episodic memory) in order to be fully human. Yes, Gustaf is different, but he might be able to love in his own way. Loosing our memory is, in some sense the end of what we were, but it is also the beginning of something new, and our preconceived notions of what this new “me” is, might be quite wrong if we simply frame it as a loss of ourselves, of our essence. Not everything is lost, and there might be a lot to discover in such situations. What we become is different, it is a different version of being human. It is a way of being that has its own dignity, its own wonders. Abandoning essentialism and retaining our curiosity even in situations where opinions about outcomes of illnesses etc. are established is, I think, a much more educated and mature way to face the complex world in which we live and the complex beings we are. We are not losing ourselves, we are merely changing along a continuum, and we should stay curious about what it is we change into and not just see it as a complete loss of something essential, for instance our memories.

And yes, if you ask me personally, I do think that Gustaf indeed remembers Molly.


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Update 2014-07-20: I slightly revised this blog post, sharpening my arguments for why a loss of memory belongs to the ontological concept of essentialism.