Are We Defined by Our Memories?


I once knew a man who was deafblueM_thumb.jpg. He claimed to have zero memories before the age of twenty. (The educational system had somehow neglected him.) He was just out of his teens when a kind soul began teaching him words and sign language. So, as he learned that words were associated with meaning, memories finally began carving a pathway throughout his brain. He was working in an ice factory then and often said that hooking ice and stacking it in straw were his first memories.

If you read Alzheimer articles and blogs, you are familiar with the phrase, “We are our memories.” We often read that if you are robbed of these memories, then you lose your identity. (This may be a loose interpretation of John Locke’s Memory Theory.)

Fast forward to this man’s aging years when he developed dementia and his memories once again disappeared.

Does this mean that he once again lost his identity?

A New Theory

The article, Morals, Not Memories, Define Who We Are cites a “new study which 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.

What they claim is that our identity is “not what we know, but what we stand for.”

Here again, I believe the scientists are wrong. (I also believe that we are not our memories.)

Why this study has it wrong

Because our morals are connected to our memories. If we stand for something and the part of our brains which have controlled that moral standing no longer functions, we lose our morals.

Case in point #1: My uncle was a devoted husband who tuned pianos and sang in church. I would have called him a bit uptight and extremely reserved. He developed Alzheimer’s. One day, my aunt visited him in the nursing home and found him walking down the hall with two women on either arm. He told my aunt these were his new wives. She said, “But, I’m your wife.” He didn’t recognize her. His morals stated one wife per one man. But, clearly he no longer remembered.

Case #2: This same aunt developed Alzheimer’s years later. She had also sang in the church choir and was reserved and very kind. But, one day she bit the nurse. Her morals would have told her she shouldn’t bite but clearly she didn’t remember or retain or possess self-restraint.

Case #3 My mother, who knows the Ten Commandments backwards and forwards, has recently falsely accused my father of murdering her parents. (Just in case you were wondering, her parents passed away several decades ago from natural causes.) Here again, her morals could not override the absences of memory or morals created by Alzheimer’s.

These examples are not uncommon.

We’ve all heard stories about the nun, the pastor, the Sunday School teacher who, upon developing Alzheimer’s, suddenly swore like the dickens and spat at their family and threw plates across the kitchen.

Was this really who they were? NO! Their behavior was based on the functions of their deteriorating brains.

And that does not define them.

‘Who one is’

‘Who one is’: a philosophical phrase meaning you, me, the guy at the bus stop, the newborn sleeping in a bassinet, are not defined by our morals.

Nor are we defined by our memories.

To take an either/or approach diminishes the truth—that we are so much more than morals and memories.

Recognize these words?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Declaration of Independence has it right. Our Creator has given us our identity. We are made in the image of God.

And for this reason, those who live and struggle and die from Alzheimer’s retain their identity and are defined by their value as human beings even if their morals slip and even when their memories disappear.

All men are created equal

We retain identity whether our bodies whither away or our minds whither away.

Those with Alzheimer’s deserve to be treated with dignity and not relocated to some scientist’s idea or some study’s findings that we are defined by our morals or our memories and if we don’t possess either one then we lack an identity.

No human has that right.

How heartless.



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