Memory Loss and Narrative Identity
By Amanda Yang
Narrative identity refers to the internalized and ever-developing story of the self that an individual constructs based on their own life (McAdams, 2013). People start creating their self-defining narrative identities in their late-adolescent and early adult years, and the process of doing so continues across one’s life span. McAdams (2011) sets forth that one’s narrative identity integrates one’s autobiographical past and imagined future in such a way to create a sense of unity and meaning in one’s life. More specifically, having a narrative identity allows individuals to communicate to themselves and to others where they have come from, who they currently are, and where they anticipate their lives to be going, giving rise to a self-narrative of coherence and purpose. In addition, McAdams (2013) discusses research on how constructing such narratives can provide an important opportunity to make sense and meaning out of negative life experiences (e.g., experiencing setbacks, such as a romantic breakup or a loss of a loved one), which can subsequently help improve one’s mental health and wellbeing.
Accordingly, an individual’s autobiographical memory, which is comprised of their personally experienced events in their lives (e.g., Kopelman, Wilson, & Baddeley, 1989) contributes to their sense of narrative identity (McAdams, 2011). Thus, an autobiographical memory system that is altered in some way may impact one’s sense of narrative identity. It is also reasonable to believe that if autobiographical memory affects narrative identity, then one’s sense of unity and meaning in their life that is derived from their narrative identity may be impacted as well. Therefore, it is plausible that any alteration of narrative identity can impact one’s sense of unity and meaning in their life in some way. Investigating this prediction is crucial because if altered autobiographical memory indeed impacts one’s narrative identity, and one’s narrative identity is critical for providing unity to one’s life and for improving one’s mental wellbeing, then individuals with memory disorders are at risk for suffering from the consequences of narrative identity disturbance.
To contribute to this limited area of the literature, future longitudinal studies should, for example, directly investigate the degree of autobiographical memory impairment and its related changes in narrative identity. To examine this, the study could assess participants on these two measures annually. The study could focus on individuals with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), which typically affects elderly adults above 65 years old (Lawrence et al., 2017), and in a control group of age-matched elderly adults. AD is a progressive neurodegenerative disease with the hallmark characteristic being autobiographical memory loss, in addition to impairment in many other cognitive domains such as problem-solving, language processing, and visuospatial abilities (Heilman & Valenstein, 2003). AD is the most common type of dementia, which is a collective term used to describe diseases that are characterized by a decline in a number of cognitive domains (e.g., memory, problem-solving, language).
The findings of such a study measuring autobiographical memory impairment and narrative identity in AD patients over time could provide insight into how we can help enhance the quality of life for AD patients – specifically, how we can help them find meaning in their lives if their narrative identity is being affected by the disease’s progression.
About the Author
Amanda Yang is a junior at Harvard College concentrating in Psychology with a secondary field in Molecular and Cellular Biology.
Heilman, K. M., & Valenstein, E. (2003). Clinical neuropsychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kopelman, M. D., Wilson, B. A., & Baddeley, A. D. (1989). The autobiographical memory interview: A new assessment of autobiographical and personal semantic memory in amnesic patients. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 11(5), 724–744.
Lawrence, E., Vegvari, C., Ower, A., Hadjichrysanthou, C., Wolf, F. D., & Anderson, R. M. (2017). A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies Which Measure Alzheimer’s Disease Biomarkers. Journal of Alzheimers Disease, 59(4), 1359–1379.
McAdams, D. P. (2011). Narrative Identity. Handbook of Identity Theory and Research, 99–115.
McAdams, D. P., & Mclean, K. C. (2013). Narrative Identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(3), 233–238.