Memory, Identity, and a Trip to Disney

I have always wanted to go to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. Up until a few years ago I really never thought it would happen, but last month the dream came true and for the first time I got to experience the best day ever in the most magical place on Earth with the most wonderful person on Earth. 

Kirsten and I wore matching Wall-e and Eve shirts (we were very cute). Upon entering the park, we received buttons that said First Visit, wore them proudly all day and gladly accepted the many happy salutations acknowledging our first visit status. It was all such a thrill. I wandered around the park all day long in a happy haze of happiness. 

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It all seemed so new; I hadn’t been to Disney World since I was nine.

“But what is this?” you might be asking. Didn’t I just say it was my first visit and I sauntered around the park all day with a first visit button? What gives? 

Just as the Caterpillar asked Alice, Who R U?, this is precisely the question we should consider for ourselves, for how do you know that you are you? And how do other people know you are you? These are the types of questions Alice in Wonderland asks because they should be simple enough to answer; after all, society is always telling us to be yourself.

So let us try to answer this question. Did I, Derek Parsons, visit Disney World Magic Kingdom for the first time on January 10th, 2020? 

Body Theory

How can we determine that 2020 was the first time I visited Magic Kingdom? Well, to begin with, we can find a photograph of me at Magic Kingdom in 2020. Then we can find an old photograph of me at age nine at Magic Kingdom, and there you have it. 

But a critical person will quickly point out that my physical body now is not the same as it was 37 years ago when I visited Magic Kingdom. In fact, my body is technically not the same as it was 24 hours ago. Can I still be identified as Derek Parsons?

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I am the taller of the two very cute boys.
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Clearly a different me, and Pooh bear for that matter!

Perhaps the classic tale of The Ship of Theseus can help us decide. As the ancient Greek story goes, a man named Theseus owned a ship. It was gone for many, many years out to sea. During that time, repairs had to be made; deck planks, oars, the hull, even the mast had been replaced during the ship’s long journey. There was also turnover in the crew; some died, some got off at other ports, even the captain was replaced. So by the time the ship returned to its port of origin, physically it was completely different in every way. It looked mostly the same, but every part of the ship had been replaced including the crew. So the question is, if all the components of the ship of Theseus had been replaced, was it the same ship?

 

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Leibniz sporting a hansom wig

Adding to arguments related to Body Theory, the 17th century philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz proposed the The Identity of Indiscernibles, which states that if any two things are identical, they must share ALL the same properties in all time in order to be considered such. So if we take nine year old Derek and 46 year old Derek, according to Leibniz, those two Dereks are not the same.

But to look at pictures of me at different time periods and saying that I am not the same person seems counter-intuitive. Of course that’s me!

37 years have passed since nine year old Derek and 46 year old Derek visited Disney World, and no doubt my body has changed as exemplified by this picture of Chip saying that I had grown a little since the last time we met. So using body theory, can we prove that I had been to Disney World before 2020?

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I cannot express how ridiculously happy I was in this moment.

Memory Theory

If the Body Theory of Personal Identification doesn’t work for you, there is a second route: Memory Theory (or Psychological Continuity theory if you want to sound a little more fancy). This is the theory that we are our memories and it is the linking nature of those memories that establish personal identity. 

The 17th century philosopher John Locke is well associated with memory theory. 

It is by the consciousness of one’s thoughts and actions that the self is conceived, and it is through the continuous link of memory that forms personal identity.

So, if I remember that last year I vacationed in Colorado, five years ago I moved from Temple to Spring, 11 years ago I met Kirsten, 25 and 22 years ago my children were born, etc. I can establish through the linkage of those memories that I am Derek Parsons.

This is a fine enough theory until you begin to take a critical look at the nature of memory. 

Memory is notoriously fragile; we fill in gaps to help retell stories and embellish memories to make the memory more suited to what we would like to believe that memory to be. We very rarely remember memories accurately (take eyewitness testimony as an example); I’m sure you’ve had an occasion where you and a friend remember the same event differently. And what if a person has Alzheimer’s or amnesia? Are they suddenly a different person because they do not have the memories? 

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John Locke is a rather dreary looking fellow in this painting. I’m sure he was a lively chap.

As I have grown older, the issue of memory has become increasingly of interest to me. It is such a strange thing, memory. There is so much forgotten and anything past 15 years or so for me becomes hazy. Recounting stories from when I was a teenager almost seems as if I am telling a fictionalized story of some kid who I technically know was me but am so far removed from it hardly even seems real. 

And this brings me to my childhood memories; there are faint recollections, dreamlike in a way, though some have very strong accompanying emotions.  Some things trigger these memories, such as when I drive by the house I grew up in, but the memories are bare, in need of some clothing to hang on and cover the bones.

So to my memories of Disney World when I was nine; they are so vague and few. Of the ones I do have, I question if I actually have these memories or if they have been reinforced over the years from the pictures my mom and dad took that day. For instance, I do not remember meeting Winnie the Pooh, but it seems I did. I also do not remember meeting Chip and Dale, but not only do I have a picture as evidence, but I also had a stuffed animal of Chip from the trip.

 

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I do not remember meeting Micky Mouse, sadly.

 

The things I think I independently remember are riding It’s a Small World multiple times, Space Mountain (though I do not remember actually riding the ride), and the Flight of Peter Pan and looking down on London. But even those memories are so hazy. I do not remember Cinderella’s castle or riding across the lake to get to the entrance. You’d think I would remember those!

So Was it My First Time?

It can be established through photographs that I was at Disney World when I was nine (well, it might have been 10). If we wanted to dig further we might find other evidence, but people such as my mom and dad can independently verify that, even though I look quite different, the person in the photo is me. So from the perspective of Body Theory, the claim that I visited Disney World for the first time in 2020 is fraudulent.

Memory Theory is a little more problematic. No one can independently verify my memories first-hand because memories are entirely a private experience. Aside from that, no one can verify my memories second-hand aside from my brother, mom and dad, but even all three of them admit their memories of the same Disney trip are questionable. They do admit remembering that it happened, and I to a very small degree do also, so again, my claim is fraudulent. 

 

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Well, after writing all that, I now feel like a big phony. But there is one last thing to consider in all this, and that’s emotion. 

The Role of Emotion

Experience becomes memory, but to say that I experienced Disney World as a nine year old is to say that the memories I have are emotionally powerful. They are not. I have no emotional tie to those first memories other than some vague notion of nostalgia; I barely have the memories. I do remember flying over London as being “neat”. 

In visiting Disney World in 2020, I can tell you without hesitation the emotion with which I experienced it is the metaphorically equivalent to the blinding radioactive intensity of the sun. Compare that with my earlier experience which is so far away in interstellar space that at best on a dark night out in the countryside, it is the faintest of pale light in the inky black sky, it is hard to say I experienced anything at all. So in this way, I think my claim that I visited Disney World for the first time in 2020 is true, yet that light in the sky still exists, no matter how pale. 

So, did I visit Disney World for the first time on January 10th, 2020 or not? You can decide for yourself.

And if you are wondering, yes, Disney World is the most magical place on Earth and it was the best day ever, two claims I will not subject to criticism. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Compliment this post with another post from the Being and Existence category.

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