I've just been ruminating on the role of memory in determing self-identity -- I've been reading and thinking about Alzheimer's and similar afflictions. What part of "self" is independent from memory? I tend to see things similarly to some philosophers of memory such as Locke or Hume; episodic memory (that is, memory of specific events of one's past) makes up self-identity. There is also the aspect of seeing what one's future is likely to bring; that, according to some studies, is also dependent on episodic memory. Other types of memory, both procedural (how to ride a bike, hold a golf club, etc.) and semantic (general knowledge of the world that is not necessarily connected to the self) are not as likely to be lost in cases such as amnesia.
I have discussed this a bit with my sister, an Alzheimer care specialist (see her work over at www.wayfinders.ca). I suppose I agree with her; the person is still there even in an Alzheimer's situation, but I wonder about the construction of identity. Can one's self identity remain if there is no memory? I don't believe so, and that is part of why I write -- journals, blogs, sad attempts at fiction -- to provide mnemonics to my life. Just as I was thinking deeply about this subject, I came across a blog which discusses this very thoroughly. Read her essay here:
Memory Loss And The Elusive Self
Memory is more than a fixed function of our brains; it is a reconstruction of the events of our lives based on our current beliefs and assumptions. If we lose the fiction that we have constructed to explain ourselves, can we remain the same self? And if our life is a construct, I would have to take to heart the words of one of my wise penpals -- "If our existence is an illusion, why not believe what will make you happy?"