The Persistence of the Self over Time in Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer's Disease

Front Psychol. 2018 Feb 20;9:94. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00094. eCollection 2018.


Diachronic unity is the belief that, despite changes, we are the same person across the lifespan. We propose that diachronic unity is supported by the experience of remembering the self over time during episodic recall (i.e., phenomenological continuity). However, we also predict that diachronic unity is also possible when episodic memory is impaired, as long as the ability to construct life narratives from semantic memory (i.e., semantic continuity) is intact. To examine this prediction, we investigated diachronic unity in Alzheimer's Disease (AD) and amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), two conditions characterised by disrupted phenomenological continuity. If semantic continuity is also altered in these conditions, there should be an associated deterioration in diachronic unity. Participants with AD, aMCI, and healthy controls (HC) completed a self-persistence interview measuring diachronic unity (beliefs about self-persistence, explanations for stability/change). Semantic continuity was assessed with a life-story interview measuring autobiographical reasoning (self-event connections), and coherence (temporal/thematic/causal) of narratives. Our results highlight a complex relationship between semantic continuity and diachronic unity and revealed a divergence between two aspects of diachronic unity: AD/aMCI groups did not differ from HC in continuity beliefs, but AD explanations for self-persistence were less sophisticated. Semantic continuity was most impaired in AD: their narratives had fewer self-event connections (vs. HCs) and lower temporal/thematic coherence (vs. HC/aMCI), while both AD/aMCI groups had lower causal coherence. Paradoxically AD participants who scored higher on measures of beliefs in the persistence of the core self, provided less sophisticated explanations for their self-persistence and were less able to explore persistence in their life narratives. These findings support the importance of semantic continuity to diachronic unity, but suggest a more nuanced and multifaceted relationship than originally proposed in our model. In AD, diminished life narratives that retain features of cultural life scripts are sufficient for strong subjective beliefs of self-persistence, but not for sophisticated explanations about persistence. Better semantic continuity, with the ability to weave high-quality life narratives, may scaffold the capacity to understand and explain one's diachronic unity, but this produces less surety about self-persistence.

Keywords: Alzheimer's disease; amnestic mild cognitive impairment; diachronic unity; narrative identity; phenomenological continuity; self-persistence; semantic continuity.