Experience vs Memory

Rene Descartes Dualism DiagramI saw an interesting TED Talk about the psychology of experience vs memory. In the talk, psychologist Daniel Kahneman talks about two competing parts of our conscious mind: the experiencing self and the remembering self. The experiencing self lives in a 3-second window of the present. The remembering self sifts through a constant stream of mental snapshots, throws out most of them, and weaves the rest into the narrative of your life. You might think that the experiencing self, being the one in control of present events, would be in charge, but in fact the remembering self dominates.

The Experiencing Self

In his TED Talk, Kahneman seems to come down on the side of the experiencing self. He brings up a thought experiment. If you were going on vacation, and you knew that at the end of it, your pictures would be destroyed and your memories erased, how would you plan things differently? For me, the answer is nothing. Like Peter Gibbon in Office Space, I would do nothing. I would relax, sleep, eat and sit around the house. Though I can’t speak for others, my experiencing self is lazy and wants nothing more than to stay in bed.

People talk about living in the moment, and I think there is some wisdom there. I do think we should strive to find happiness in the present. Even if we’re doing something boring, like waiting in line, we should try to find the more positive aspects of the experience. But I disagree with Kahneman on too strongly favoring the experiencing self. To me, that just leads to a mindless hedonism: food, sleep, sex, and not much else.

The Remembering Self

While talking about experience vs memory, Kahneman mentions a trip he took years ago, saying that since that vacation, he’s really only reminisced for about 25 minutes in total. This is the weakest part of his argument, since it’s backed up by anecdotal rather than empirical evidence. Even if we take this anecdote as fact, it fails to take into account subconscious influences in our psyche. We don’t relive memories like video clips. Instead we recall brief bits here and there. Our brains merge memories together, mixing up what happened on separate vacations. We retain things we learn and things that influence us for better or worse. Even if we only reminisce for half an hour, it’s more than worth the initial time invested in the experience.

To me the remembering self is what separates us from other animals. It’s that human ability to take memories and build complex narratives that makes us human. What’s the point of doing anything if we can’t make a story out of it? To me, life is about building a narrative of memories to guide me into future endeavors.

What do you think about experience vs memory? Let me know in the comments.

Steve Lovelace

Steve Lovelace is a writer and graphic artist. After graduating Michigan State University in 2004, he taught Spanish in Samoa before moving to Dallas, Texas. He blogs regularly at http://steve-lovelace.com.

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1 Response

  1. July 11, 2015

    […] reminisce about the past. On the other hand, I think that living too much in the present leads to impulsiveness and hedonism. So how do you find the right […]

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