What Is Continuity Psychology?

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

According to John Locke (1632-1704), personal identity is related to the survival of awareness or consciousness after death. Locke believed that a person's identity is a matter of psychological continuity. His theory was that one's sense of self or identity has nothing to do with the body or soul but is only based on memory and awareness.

Humans have been trying to answer whether there is life after death for centuries. Some say that consciousness can transfer from one body to another, with identity following it. Others say that when you die, your consciousness disappears. Understanding the connection between these theories and continuity psychology may help you better understand your ideas of life and death. 

Continuity psychology involves your identity and sense of self

Questions about continuity psychology

What would happen if someone took your brain and put it into another person's body? Would you still be you? Would your memories and sense of self (consciousness and awareness) now be in this new body? If so, where would the memories and sense of self of the new body's previous brain go? Would they be lost forever if not put into another body, or would they continue indefinitely without being bound to the earth? 

What if they put this other person's brain in your old body? Would you both remember that you used to have a different body? Or maybe your old body still holds onto your consciousness, which stays with you to be transferred into this new brain. So, who would you be? Would you be the person with your new brain and old body or the old brain with the new body? These questions formed the basis of the continuity psychology theory, discussed below. 

Continuity psychology definition

According to psychology experts, continuity in psychology refers to the ability to continue the same way indefinitely. Gestalt Theory speaks of vision and creating continuous patterns connected to objects uninterrupted forever. Locke's memory theory of your memory being your consciousness is like Gestalt's theory.

However, Thomas Reid (1710-1796) disagreed with these theories, using his memory as an example. He stated that he could not remember everything he had ever done in his lifetime, so memory shouldn't be connected to consciousness. 

Even if an individual forgets an event, they are the same person who went through it. For this reason, Reid believed memory couldn't be "who you are" since people cannot remember every event from their whole lifetime. 

Memory theories 

Reid also brought up another discrepancy with Locke's theory. He asked the question: What is a memory? If you were to tell someone in detail about a memory you had of meeting the Pope when you were younger, it becomes a part of their memories. Would that mean it is their memory? If they remember it and can tell it to someone else, it is now in their memory. However, is it their memory? 

Reid believed that the memory of being told of memory is not a memory because memory is only personal if the person who has it is the one who experienced it in the first place. 

Continuity in psychology

Psychologists examine what it means to continue and try to answer what happens to your consciousness after you die and whether it means you have had another life before. Those who believe in past lives look at why memories of those lives may no longer exist. 

You may have experienced a sense of déjà vu, which involves feeling that you are reliving a moment you have already experienced. Some people might believe that this sensation is a memory of a past life. If you could recall memories from past lives, think of all the knowledge you might have. Those interested in similar topics may enjoy learning about consciousness psychology.

Joseph Butler and consciousness psychology

Joseph Butler (1692-1752) was another philosopher who discounted Locke's theory. Butler believed that Locke did not realize that consciousness existed before identity, so identity cannot be consciousness. Since identity is rapidly changing, it isn't the same throughout life. 

Cells are constantly dying in each body, and new ones are replacing them. In addition, people change as they age, which can sometimes be so drastic as to include the loss of extremities or a plastic surgery operation that changes your looks completely. These changes don't change your identity or consciousness. 

Continuity vs. stages in psychology

The theory of developmental stages and the theory of continuity are also considered. Various theories have been made about how each person develops from birth to adulthood. Some believe that humans grow and develop continuously, whereas others believe humans grow and develop discontinuously in stages, according to a set schedule.

The ability to continuously and constantly change and grow in the mind and body is the most popular opinion of many experts. These experts believe that children constantly add knowledge and skills as they age, steadily and uniformly. Whether you can see it or not, brains constantly absorb knowledge and ideas, steadily gathering more information for future use throughout our lives. Even older adults with dementia can learn new skills despite losing memory. 

Those who believe people grow and learn in stages claim that humans can only learn specific skills at certain times. For example, you might not expect to teach a newborn how to read, no matter how hard you try. However, some people have taught young children and toddlers to read and write. However, there are still average developmental stages for many humans, and those who go outside of these stages may be a minority. 

Continuity psychology involves your identity and sense of self

Support options 

The mystery of the mind and sense of self has continued for centuries and may continue for many more years. However, psychological continuity can help you explore identity and memory. If you want to discuss these topics further or learn what parts of identity theories you connect with, consider talking with a counselor. 

You don't have to have a mental illness to speak to a counselor, and thousands of professionals online and in person can offer support. If you'd prefer an internet-based therapist, you can work with providers through a platform like BetterHelp via phone, video, or chat sessions with a therapist matched to your unique needs. You can attend sessions from home and talk about any topic you're interested in learning in the realm of mental health or daily life. 

Studies have also backed up the effectiveness of online therapy. One review found that 71% of participants found Internet therapy more effective than face-to-face, and 90% felt it was more convenient.  

Takeaway

Continuity psychology discusses how memory, identity, and consciousness interact with each other and whether they are separate. If you're interested in what happens to consciousness after death, you might find the above psychological theories interesting. If you want to discuss these topics in further detail or are struggling with fears related to existentialism, you can also reach out to a therapist at any time for support.
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