Some time ago, I've read that the most significant people in a person's life have their own internal representation/model of within the person's mind. For example:

  • An internal representation of a spouse
  • An internal representation of parents, grandparents
  • An internal representation of children
  • Close friends, etc

This representation does not matter, until the connection is severed - the significant person dies or moves away. This is when there's no more input from the real world - only the internal representation remains. For example, it is possible to dream of an interaction with a deceased relative. My question is about whatever phenomenon causes people to be able to dream and interact with people previously known, while in a dream.

I'm interested if there has been research that confirms that people do indeed have unique internal models of significantly close relatives? If so, what is the correct term to use when searching for scientific information on the subject?

Update: In particular, I'm interested in unique internal representations - linked to a unique object in real life. Do they exist?

For example, there is only one spouse. Jane Smith. Has there been evidence that the internal representation of Jane Smith is unique (every single time Jane Smith is encountered, it is the same representation, possibly lighting up the same region of the brain if viewed with imaging techniques).

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ it's unclear what you're asking. we have internal representations of everyhing--not just people, and especially not just dead people. we can imagine dead relatives for the same reason we can imagine a block of cheese. perhaps if you cite the source where you saw this idea we can answer your question better. $\endgroup$
    – Jeff
    Dec 12, 2012 at 0:31
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's good to know that there are internal representations. The block of cheese may not be a good example, because it rarely talks to you, and as such it is hard to interact with it! I've updated the question to indicate that I'm looking for proof of unique representations $\endgroup$
    – Alex Stone
    Dec 12, 2012 at 2:54
  • $\begingroup$ I've seen this idea a very long time ago, possibly in the book "7 habits of highly effective people", but I don't have the book to verify $\endgroup$
    – Alex Stone
    Dec 12, 2012 at 3:02
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Douglas Hofstadter stands by this stance in "I am a Strange Loop". He tends to borrow ideas from earlier philosophers without attribution, but I don't know off the top where this particular idea originates. $\endgroup$ Dec 12, 2012 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexStone: I think I am missing something, is there any difference between internal representation and a memory of the person? $\endgroup$ Dec 13, 2012 at 18:27

1 Answer 1


Alex, the following few remarks hardly deserve the status of an answer, but I think your interesting question, taken with with Greg's pertinent rider, makes it worth sharing a couple of ideas, even at the risk of downvotes from the type of churls and trolls I have already become familiar with on math stack exchange.

really I just want to relate your question to a couple of other well-known phenomena in our mental life.

firstly, I have occasionally thought that there is a curious analogy between the sufferings related to grief (whether through bereavement or various forms of traumatic separation - e.g. at adoption, or in certain cases of asymmetric relationship breakdown) and the discomfort sometimes experienced after surgical or traumatic amputation known in the literature as phantom limbs. personally I think this analogy tends to support some form of the hypothesis you propose regarding internal representations.

Greg's question is useful: how can one distinguish such internal representations from memories? of course it all depends what is meant by memory. so your question could, if necessary, be rephrased as a question about certain high-level structural aspects of memory and perception. in this context it is also worth noting that the same type of things we call self-awareness, recognition of others, and grief, have been attributed to non-human animals, particularly some species of mammals and birds.

my personal academic study of psychology took place in the early 1970's. this was an interesting time, because the intellectual bankruptcy of the still-dominant behavioristic paradigm had recently become very apparent due to its utter inadequacy to provide a basis for any but the most trivial aspects of psycholinguistics. in consequence there was a growing enthusiasm for the investigation of generative grammars and the complementary idea of species-specific biological bases for the deep structures which underlie complex aspects of perception, memory and cognition. this shift in paradigm was contemporary with a similar refocusing of interest in anthropology, which was part of a wider shift towards an approach which had become known as structuralism. those within the orbit of Anglo-Saxon empiricism were in general more resistant to this new way of thinking, but the influence was notable nevertheless.

my second point is merely a simple observation, but one whose genuineness is unproblematic in informal discourse. in personal terms, I have often noticed myself in quite casual conversation confusing the names of two former partners. to me this is evidence (admittedly only one tiny piece of a very large jigsaw) for the existence of a deep-structure corresponding to the social category of significant other. this, if it exists, is completely distinct from any kind of specific memory of individuals one has related to. of course the hard-core empiricist would still be obliged to insist this was "merely" a type of misremembering. but such a dogmatic approach ignores the insights which have long been available through the informal paradigm which underlies Freud's methodology in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and also perhaps Jokes and the Subconscious - the general hypothesis that minor errors or distortions on the accessible surface of behaviour can offer valuable clues about the deeper mental processes which underlie the surface behaviour and play a key part in its production, but which are far less accessible to introspection. a very good example which clarifies this particular distinction is the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon where we "know what we want to say" but just "can't find the word". often the sought-after word spontaneously arises in consciousness some time afterwards. i.e. the search, once initated, continues at the preconscious level, and this process continues to run - in the background, as it were, to use computer parlance - even though the conversation is long finished. have you ever rung a friend with some rather unimportant revelation of this type - "I've just remembered the word I couldn't recall" - only to find that the relevant context has been entirely forgotten by them?


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.