The psychological basis of self-remembering

Bruce Charlton

I can still recall the shock of recognition with which I first encountered the concept of self-remembering. I was sitting in the Edinburgh City Library in 1978, reading through a stack of books by an author I had just recently discovered - a writer by the name of Colin Wilson. Which of his volumes that contained the reference to self-remembering, I cannot now recall. But it was a revelation to discover in an author writing explicitly about matters which struck me as the most important in my own life, but which I had hardly seen mentioned elsewhere. I found the concept of self-remembering to be a particularly important and lasting insight.

The concept of self-remembering

Self-remembering refers to those psychological states in we are simultaneously looking inward and outwards, aware both of the environment and of ourselves within it. The name presumably comes from the fact of 'remembering' one's self, while engaged with the external world (as opposed to merely being engaged with the external world and 'forgetful' of oneself within it). They are the times when one feel most alive, awake, and present in the here-and-now. By comparison with self-remembering the rest of life occurs at one remove from actuality, almost like a dream.

Such events may happen several times a day, if we are lucky. For example, I may take a late evening stroll around the quiet streets, absorbed in thinking over the problems of the day - when I catch sight of the moon and am abruptly aware of myself as a sentient being walking under the night sky, and aware of the vast distances of space. But self-remembering need not be altogether pleasant. Aroused late at night by my baby son, and having soothed him to sleep in a more-or-less practiced routine, I may suddenly snap to awareness and 'see' myself going about my task: it is late, the world is asleep, I feel tired, and outside a bird is singing.

Having put a name to this experience made it easier to recognize, and also easier to recognize its absence. I found that - although brief - episodes of self-remembering seemed to be essential for a fulfilled life. And episodes of self-remembering seem also to be better remembered. Recalling an episode of SR can be almost like replaying a tape in which not only the events but also the emotions are re-experienced.

I suggest that the psychological basis self-remembering may be explicable, at least in outline, from recent research into the evolution of brain and behavior - especially using new concepts of the emotions.

Awareness of emotions

The crucial aspect of self-remembering, which makes it distinctive to humans (and maybe a few other social mammals such as chimpanzees and dolphins), is the evolved ability to concentrate attention on inner states: to become aware of oneself. This is also known as the power of introspection.

Introspective awareness seems to have evolved in complex social animals to allow them to understand the minds of other members of their own species. This ability allows us to do 'internal modeling' of the thoughts of others, which greatly improves prediction (and manipulation) of their behavior. Such a capacity is sometimes called the 'theory of mind' mechanism, because it allows one person to develop a 'theory' about what is in another person's mind. Such theories are not always true, since we do not have direct access to the contents of thought; but in most circumstances these inferences have a greater than even chance of being right - which is good enough from an evolutionary perspective .

Introspection allows an awareness of our emotions. And recent research suggests that each emotion - fear, anger, disgust etc. - is based upon a particular bodily state. The brain communicates with the body by means of sensory nerves and chemical messenger molecules such as hormones. For example, fear is characterized by a state of physical arousal and preparation for action including the release of adrenaline into the blood, faster heartbeat and breathing, hair standing up, and blood being diverted to the muscles. The brain registers this body state as it develops, and uses the information to generate appropriate behavior.

Even a simple animal such as a shrew can experience an emotion such as fear when its brain registers an aroused body state, but unlike the shrew a human can also be aware that he is experiencing fear. The human brain therefore not only registers emotion, but human emotions can be 'projected' into those parts of the brain that generate awareness. This ability to be aware of emotions is probably the basis of 'consciousness'.

So, emotions are almost universal among animals, but awareness of emotions is unique to humans and a few other 'higher' social mammals. And awareness of emotions seems to have evolved because it can be used in understanding the behavior of others - which is very useful to social-living animals that have complex societies. For instance, if we are afraid of Joe Bloggs, and we are aware that we are afraid of him, then we can take this into account in planning future behavior. We may decide that if Joe Bloggs makes us afraid, perhaps he is intending to attack us, and so we should avoid him (or maybe attack him first.).

Humans monitor their emotions for clues about the dispositions, motivations and intentions of others. This is one reason why emotions are vital for social competence - because we rely upon accurate emotions as a guide to social situations. Brain damaged people with damage to the frontal lobes may retain high level powers of abstract reasoning, but because they have lost awareness of their emotions they suffer severe social handicaps and display poor judgment. People who are unable to use emotions in planning frequently become un-employable despite their unimpaired intelligence test scores. Human reasoning is therefore not merely logical, but involves a highly developed ability to be aware of, and to interpret, emotions.

The brain mechanism of self-remembering

But introspection is only half-way to self remembering, and not the whole thing. In SR there is introspection and at the same time there is awareness of the environment. In other words, attention is divided between the inner and outer environment to allow a simultaneous monitoring of the changing environment and one's own inner emotional changes in response to that environment.

The brain receives information from the external world, via the five senses of vision, hearing, touch, taste and smell; and from the internal world of the body via the nervous system and chemical messages. Self-remembering is possible in humans because awareness can be directed inwards towards body states, as well as outwards at the environment. Since short term memory (probably located in the upper, outer parts of the frontal lobe of the brain) is capable of retaining images for several seconds, both internal and external perceptions can be experienced simultaneously by a rapid oscillation of attention between body and environment.

During self-remembering, it seems likely that attention is divided between internal and external information, so that the highest integrative centres of the brain are simultaneously monitoring changes in the outside world and the way our inner emotional world responds to these changes. In other words, in self-remembering we experience the moment-by-moment dynamic relationship between our selves and the environment.

But, perhaps unfortunately, an episode of SR typically lasts only a few seconds before our the simultaneous awareness of inner and outer perceptions breaks down, and the balance tips either towards unilateral introspection or absorption in environmental stimuli. This is probably due to the nature of attention mechanisms. Attention tends to follow whatever the brain judges to be most relevant - this judgment being based on a combination of evolved and learned criteria. So, perceptions 'compete' for attention.

In SR, attention is evenly divided between internal and external stimuli, but this equal division is not stable. Usually, attention is seized and monopolized either by something in the external world or by our own response to it. Even to realize that we are self-remembering may provoke us into thinking 'about' self remembering, instead of doing it.

Self-remembering therefore appears to result from the circumstance of divided attention, which is very unusual. In my opinion, SR can only be generated and sustained in those situations when there is enough happening both outside and inside the body that the attention demanded by each balances almost exactly, and attention does not get 'sucked-into' either of them. This means that SR requires continual environmental change to be matched by continual emotional changes.

Circumstances conducive to self-remembering

One consequence is that SR only occurs in circumstances in which we are not expected to engage in complex actions that demand conscious attention. I am more likely to experience SR when walking than when static - presumably because walking enables a continuous change of scene, of sights, of sounds, of smells. Similarly, activities which require more concentration than walking - such as running, cycling or driving a car - seem to block the possibility of SR because they demand too much attention and prevent me from becoming simultaneously aware of my emotions.

And an analogous set of requirements holds for the body as for the environment. The play of emotions must be sufficient to attract and hold the attention, to prevent attention being absorbed by external events. So inner emotional states must constantly be modulating - since a stable emotional state does not demand continued attention. On the other hand, if emotions become too powerful, then they will absorb all of attention.

This means that powerful emotions may prevent self-remembering, especially unpleasant (and - to the brain - potentially dangerous) emotions such as pain. Likewise, emotional blunting, or emotional monotony, may prevent SR because emotions are not able to 'track' the changes in the external environment and continue to demand a share of attention.

* * *

The positive take home message is that by understanding its pre-requisites, we may be able to induce self-remembering more readily. For example, if we walk to work instead of driving, this may provide an ideal opportunity for SR. Or if we find ourselves distracted by pain and morbidly introspective, then painkillers could help. And, because we are social animals, humans are easily distracted by other people - so solitude may be a pre-requisite for self-remembering.

I remain unsure of the biological significance of self-remembering. It may have evolutionarily-relevant functions with a pay-off in increased survival or reproduction - for example promoting creativity, better environmental perceptiveness, or a sense of meaningfulness and purpose. Or it may be an evolutionary accident, a mere by-product of social intelligence.

But for many people such as myself the subjective validity of self-remembering is axiomatic, and its psychological benefits so obvious as to require no further justification.

Bruce Charlton MD, Department of Psychology, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7 RU. The rationale and references for these ideas can be found in Psychiatry and the Human Condition by Bruce Charlton - Radcliffe Medical Press, 2000; and on the web site

Bruce G Charlton MD
Department of Psychology
University of Newcastle upon Tyne



also by Bruce Charlton
Peak Experiences
Cargo Cult Science
The Malaise Theory of Depression
Psychiatry and the Human Condition
Awareness, Consciousness and Language
Psychopharmacology and The Human Condition
Injustice, Inequality and Evolutionary Psychology