Human Dimensions: Bobby Azerian writes: “Although Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases may powerfully impact the mental functioning of individuals, sufferers can find some solace in the fact that substantial memory deficits—when unaccompanied by changes in moral characteristics—seem to have no effect on how others perceive ‘who you are.’ ”
An article, by Bobby Azerian, in Scientific American says that individuals diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease might find comfort in the view that humans are chiefly defined by the morals they hold and not by their memories. So, even if such persons have little recall of their past lives, this does not diminish their personhood, essentially because their patterns of behaviour remain the same as before the disease took hold.
In “Morals, Not Memories, Define Who We Are” (September 29, 2015), Azerian writes:
Fortunately, science appears to suggest that being robbed of one’s memory does not equate with being robbed of one’s identity. A new study has found that “who one is” is largely defined by one’s moral behavior, and not by one’s memory capacity or other cognitive abilities. Thus, although Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases may powerfully impact the mental functioning of individuals, sufferers can find some solace in the fact that substantial memory deficits—when unaccompanied by changes in moral characteristics—seem to have no effect on how others perceive “who you are.”
Determining the factors that define one’s identity is an old philosophical problem that first received serious consideration in the 17th century by the early British empiricist, John Locke. According to Locke’s “memory theory”, a person’s identity only reaches as far as their memory extends into the past. In other words, who one is critically depends upon what one remembers. Thus, as a person’s memory begins to disappear, so does his identity.
This notion of identity as memory has received experimental support from psychology research. A 2004 study followed Alzheimer’s patients and found that those exhibiting impairments in autobiographical memory—one’s knowledge of their own past experiences and events—on standard psychological tests showed changes in the strength and quality of identity. The strength of identity was measured by the number of unique statements given by the patient in response to the question, “Who am I?” while the quality of identity was measured by the abstractness of their answers, i.e., their lack of specific details. These findings seem to imply that autobiographical memories create a continuous first-person narrative that helps form a sense of self.
However, other scientists remain unconvinced of Locke’s premise, as some theorize that more central to identity is moral capacity—a variable that these previous studies did not adequately control for. Evidence for this idea comes from social cognition research that has found that impression formation is largely dependent on the moral dimension. In other words, how we see people—whether they are positive or negative, to be approached or avoided—is mostly determined by our assessment of their moral character, and not their intellect, knowledge, or other personality traits. The concept that morals are essential to identity is aptly known as the essential-moral-self hypothesis.This is a noteworthy finding, because it says that what is important, after all is said and done, is that a person's moral dimensions and history are a greater definition of his being than collective memories. Carrying this argument further, one can say that morals tell others not only about what an individual stands for, but also much about his past life, including his decisions.
If a person you know suffers from a cognitive impairment—the steady decline is no doubt heart-breaking—there might be some comfort in knowing that this person has the same moral identity before and after. There is a caveat, however, to the research study. It applies to persons affected only by Alzheimer’s the article says, “where those with frontotemporal dementia tend to undergo changes in moral traits—i.e., things like honesty, compassion, decency, and integrity.”
For more, go to [ScientAmer]