Psychoactive substances or meditation can trigger an experience that the self dissolves and is no longer present. The philosophers Dr Raphael Millière of Columbia University in New York and Professor Albert Newen of Ruhr-Universität Bochum analyzed whether accounts of memories of such experiences should be taken seriously. They conclude that disinterested memories are possible. Their reasoning is set out in the journal Erkenntnisposted on May 12, 2022.
“Without such experiences, we cannot imagine what it means when the self dissolves,” says Albert Newen. The question he asked with Raphaël Millière was: “Isn’t it better to interpret memories as a retrospective reconstruction, which ignores the original experience? In our daily consciousness, the self is always present. When you grab a car key, you implicitly feel that you are the agent and that it is your own arm that is doing the movement. When you look at something, you feel like you are in the center of the visual perspective.
Indications of the existence of disinterested experiences
People with neurological disorders, for example as a result of strokes, are known to have altered facets of this self-perception. “Furthermore, neural processing is known to change dramatically during meditation,” Newen and Millière state. “As a result, we should recognize that there are experiences devoid of any facet of the self.” But even so, it remains doubtful that people can remember it, as Newen explains: “If a person describes a memory of a disinterested experience, he is in a state of self-consciousness when he remembers – – and how can she remember an episode if they weren’t self-aware during the original experience?”
Explanation based on the Bochum memory model
The Bochum model of memory, which is developed in research group 2812, is based on the assumption that people construct a script when they remember. The process begins with the activation of a memory trace in which the essential parts of the experience are stored. The memory trace is then enriched with background knowledge, resulting in the construction of a living memory of a lived event. Also, people usually add two facets of themselves into the construction: they register that it is themselves who are involved in the scene and that the memory belongs to them. Researchers speak of self-involvement and a lack of memory.
Newen and Millière argue that self-involvement and mineness should, however, be distinct aspects. This is because some patients describe being involved in an episode (“I remember the scene where I did something”) without feeling the memory as theirs – the memory’s mine is missing. The two facets of self added in the construction may be absent from the original memory and only emerge during the construction process. Even if the original experience contained no facets of self and is deposited in the memory trace without such facets, facets of self may still be included in the construct. Therefore, a memory of disinterested experiences and accounts of such experiences should be taken seriously.
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Material provided by Ruhr-University of Bochum. Original written by Julia Weiler. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.