How Our Brains Build Our Autobiographies

Question: How do our brains construct coherent personal narrative out of our memories of experiences?

Antonio Damasio:  You do it in very interesting ways.  A first way is by taking the story as it happens.  You know, our biographies happened one part at a time.  There is a sequence of events in our lives and so there’s a temporal aspect to our experience that brings by itself, sense into the story.  In other words, you were not walking before you were born and you were not doing X and Y before you did something else first.  So there’s a sequencing of events that imposes a certain structure to the story.

Then there’s something that intervenes and is very important which has to do with value.  Value in the true biological sense, which is that contrary to what many people seem to think, taking it at face value—sorry for the pun—we do not give the same amount of emotional significance to every event. So there are things in our lives that take up an enormous importance and that become very dominant effects in our biography.  And that comes out of a variety of reasons, but fundamentally comes out of how that particular experience connects with your effective systems of response.  So if something produces an undue amount of pleasure or undue amount of displeasure, it’s going to be judged differently and it’s going to be introduced in your narrative with a different size, with a different development.  And so that is the next element to superimpose on the sequencing element.  And in fact, that element is so powerful that very often it can trump the sequencing event, that the sequencing aspect.  So something may have happened before, and yet this thing that happened just after may be so important that you don’t even know about the thing that happened before and when you tell your story to yourself, or to someone else, it’s going to be told not on the basis necessarily of the time course, but rather on the basis of how it was valued by you.

And that value, by the way, does not need to be conscious.  You know, you’re not deciding, "Aha, this is very good, X-value." No, you’re assigning value naturally as life unfolds and that’s this very important element for the construction of one’s narrative.  And the other thing that is very important is that narratives are not fixed.  We change our narratives for ourselves and we change them not necessarily deliberately. In other words, some people do, some people will constantly reconstruct their biography for external purposes, it’s a very interesting political ploy, you know.  But whether we want to do it because we want to have people to have a different idea of who we are or not, we do it naturally.  So the way we construct our narrative is different from the way we constructed it a year ago.  The difference is maybe very small or it may be huge.

And they’re constantly as a result of events that happen in your life.  You’re not the same after, say, an incredible love affair that went very well or a love affair that went bad. Or something that happens to your health, or something that happened to somebody else’s health, that is close to you.  Or something that happens professionally.  All of those things sort of rearrange the way your story gets constructed.

Question: Does constructing these stories change our brains?

Antonio Damasio:  Well, of course it happens, first of all, in the brain, and it's affecting the brain because it sort of changes the weights with which memories are recalled.  So I know we had a chance of talking on another occasion about the architecture of convergence and divergence. All of that is constantly operating when you not only learn, but when you recall.  But as you recall in a different light, the weights with which something is more probably going to be or not recalled on the next instance, are going to be changed.  So you’re constantly changing the way, for instance, synapses are going to fire very easily or not so easily.  There’s that effect that is very physical, very down there at the synaptic level, which really means microscopic cellular level, but also molecular level, because all of those structures are operating on an electrochemical basis and so the changes there are very important.

Recorded on August 10, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

While our own personal histories happen one event at a time, our brains make sense of our lives by stringing these events together in an structured way.

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