It occurred to me the other day that personality could be seen as a form of memory.

I’ve read somewhere (!) that for the most part memory is present- or future-oriented. That is, the purpose of memory is not to enable us to reflect on the past but to enable us to operate more efficiently in the present and anticipate future events based on past experiences. So, when we wake up in the morning we work through a whole series of procedural memory scripts – showering, cleaning our teeth, dressing, and preparing breakfast (amongst other things). These scripts reduce the cognitive load of everyday life. I like the morning routine example because, if I had to deliberately think through the process of getting up in the morning, I would be even slower than I already am and because, in the morning, I do a lot whilst still being half asleep.

If we think about these procedural memory scripts as involving social behaviour as well as motor control then it becomes clear that we rely on these scripts in all sorts of social situations to get through them with reduced cognitive effort – the ‘buying food from a stall-holder at the market’ script, the ‘meeting tutees’ script, the (in my case very wonky) ‘innocuous chat at some social occasion’ script.

Personality begins to seem like the accumulated impression that all our personal scripts make on other people. The idiosyncratic ways we each deal with (for example) work meetings, or with grief, are the things that make us individuals in the eyes of others.

If, as it seems, procedural memory is stored separately from, say, autobiographical memory then it seems reasonable for someone at a recent workshop to observe that although much his mother’s autobiographical memory was lost, she was still his mother, if only because those personal, maternal scripts continued to be evoked when she recognised his presence.


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in ageing, identity, memory. Bookmark the permalink.

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