Memory and Morality: What Determines How Others See Us?

First Posted: Aug 17, 2015 10:19 PM EDT

Memory is certainly essential to our every-day function. Yet is it ultimately essential to our character? New findings published in the journal Psychological Science reveal that our moral traits may actually be the core components to our identity.

Data collected from family members of patients suffering from neurodegenerative illnesses showed that it was changes in moral behavior and not memory loss that resulted in loved ones saying that a family member was no longer the "same person" anymore.

In this recent study, researchers recruited 248 participatns with family members suffering from one of three types of neurodegenerative diseases: frontotemporal dementia, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Alzheimer's disease (AD). While both frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer's disease are associated with cognitive changes, and frontotemporal dementia is specifically associated with changes to frontal lobe function that affect moral behavior, ALS is primarily associated with loss of voluntary motor control.

The participants, who were mostly spouses, were asked to report the extent to which their loved ones showed symptoms (rating each from none to severe.) They were also asked to say how much their family member had changed based on 30 different traits, including how much their relationship with the patient had deteriorated following the onset of the disease. Lastly, they were asked to respond to how much they believed the patient's identity had changed as a result of having the disease.

The results revealed that both Alzheimer's disease and frontotemporal dementia were associated with a greater sense of identity disruption than ALS, with frontotemporal dementia leading to the greatest deterioration in identity. Importantly, the association could not be explained by differences in overall functional decline.

Statistical models also showed that perceived identity change was strongly linked with change in moral traits, with close to no other symptom, including depression, amnesia, and changes in personality traits, holding observable impact on perceived identity change.

Furthermore, the researchers based the degree of perceived identity change on how much they felt their relationship with the patient had deterirorated, as well as the association that was driven by the degree of change in the patient's moral traits. 

Researchers also found that the degree of perceived identity change was associated with how much the participants thought their relationship with the patient had deteriorated, and this association was driven by the degree of change in the patient's moral traits.

Researchers believe that these findings must help address the issue of preserving moral function for future neurodegenerative therapies-a factor that is typically overlooked, in order to ensure the well-being of patients, as well as their families.

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