The Crucial Role of Memory in Creating Identity and a Positive Sense of Self

The Role of Memory in Brain Development

Memory plays an important part of identity formation and creating a positive sense of self. As a child develops and has experiences, there is a part of the brain that creates a story from these experiences and over time there is a sense of self that develops. This is known as Autobiographical Memory (AM). Memory plays an important role in helping an individual remember the good choices and positive parts of oneself (“I helped Mom today with the groceries” “My brother bothered me today but I ignored him and didn’t hit him”) and is also part of what bonds us to others. We remember that another human is trustworthy based on their pattern of behavior and then a bond is formed. Memory also helps young people make better choices in the future by calling to mind mistakes previously made and correcting future behavior. When development happens normally, the parts of the brain that interpret experiences and the parts of the brain that create memory all communicate so that a seamless stream of experiences and memories are constantly being formed. The result is a young person that learns from mistakes, overcomes shame and guilt by remembering made positive choices and recognizes positive parts of herself. Socially, healthy bonds are formed with parents and caregivers, other trusted adults, and friendships are created.

Neurodevelopmental Delays and Factors that Disrupt Memory

Sometimes, this process of memory is disrupted. Neurodevelopmental disorders like autism create delays in parts of the brain. These parts do not develope correctly and communication between different parts of the brain can be disrupted. Other conditions like trauma, neglect and abuse, and grief can also disrupt normal brain functioning. Since adolescence is a time of upheaval in the brain, there can be times in the young person’s development when the function of memory is delayed or disrupted, resulting in low self-worth, self-loathing, and the inability to form or sustain relationships with others. For young people with these problems, they tend to move through life simply existing and reacting to events. Without memory functioning as it should, there is no way to interpret events and relate these events to themselves; in essence, the child does not develop a sense of self. To also complicate matters, children with these types of delays and challenges only tend to remember events associated with negative emotions (fear, sadness, frustration, etc.) which become intertwined and the child often views these events as “my fault.” Without a functioning memory to recall good choices and positive attributes about oneself to balance this out, the child is left with only the negative emotion and associates their ‘self’ as “bad” and they cannot see any other perspective. This is also why children on the spectrum tend to struggle with the concept of time and why routine is so important is helping reduce stress. It is as if the brain only registers danger or negative experiences, and so the individual remains in a sense of high alert as the sympathetic nervous system (“Fight/Flight/Freeze”) continually fires in a constant loop.

Problems that Result from Disrupted Memory Systems

As noted, there are many problems that can occur from delays or disruptions in memory systems during the course of development. A lack of a sense of self can disrupt the process of attachment, self-acceptance, and receiving and giving love and affection. Self-hatred and self-rejection can lead to failures in correctly assessing situations and may event result in self-harming behaviors like drug use or ultimately suicide. Researchers have found that individuals on the autism spectrum who hoard things and have obsessive impulses towards specified interests (video games, anime, TV shows and movies, etc.) are actually attempting to construct a sense of self through this behavior (Skirrow, Jackson, Perry, & Hare, 2015). Also, the lack of development of the sense of self is directly related to the absence of or delay in AM (Tanweer, Rathbone, & Souchay, 2010) in individuals with autism and which disrupts social development and can result in depression.

What Can Parents and Caregivers Do?

For parents and caregivers, there are specific things that can be done to help compensate for memory deficits and delays. For example:

·       Using routines and schedules to help make life predictable and organized.

·       Connecting with the individual through the specified interest (watching a show, learning about a video game, and understanding the items that are collected).

·       Building Relationship: I can’t say enough about this one. Spending quality time in play, connecting, and showing interest through relationship helps instill memories that are positive in nature. Studies have shown that play and connection shift the brain out of fight/flight/freeze and shut off the ‘loop’ of survival mode. The longer the brain maintains a sense of safety the longer this becomes the new normal and other parts of the brain that need to grow and come ‘online’ do so. This is a foundational component of my counseling approach and I’ll never change it or apologize for it. Young people with neurodevelopmental challenges are often managed like objects, but yet never develop a sense of self or understand who they are. Connecting through the individual’s specified interest is an important way to send the message that you value them and they can find a sense of value through the relationship. This is very important later in life in forming relationships and becoming as independent as possible, and also in being able to deal with negative emotions like sadness and fear.

·       Encouragement and Praise: Whether you’re raising a child with autism or dealing with an adolescent who just seems to be in a negative ‘funk,’ find ways to offer positive messages of encouragement and praise them when you see an opportunity to do so.

Last, remember that the process of developing a sense of self and identity is a slow process. If there is a significant challenge like autism or if the child has experienced a significant amount of distress in the form of loss, abandonment, or trauma, it will take time for this to be overcome. Counseling that specifically focuses on these issues can be extremely helpful through helping the individual process past events and develop self-understanding and self-appreciation.  


Skirrow, Paul, Jackson, Paul, Perry, Ewan and Hare, Dougal Julian (2015). I collect therefore I am- Autonoetic consciousness and hoarding in Asperger Syndrome. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy 22 (3) , pp. 278-284. 10.1002/cpp.1889

Tanweer, T., Rathbone, C. J., & Souchay, C. (2010). Autobiographical memory, autonoetic consciousness, and identity in Asperger syndrome. Neuropsychologia, 48(4), 900-908. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2009.11.007