Memory is such an interesting topic. It’s one of the things that makes us human. It’s what gives life meaning. Our particular memories tell the story of our life and are are unique to us. What we remember from a particular event can be very different from someone else who was there at the same time.
This is one of the many topics studied by behavioural psychologist Daniel Kahneman. He is the author of the book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I wrote about back in 2016 (Perception and Intuition). Recently, Krista Tippett interviewed Kahneman on the On Being podcast. The question in the title of this post – what’s more important, the experience or the memory of the experience – came up as they discussed how we communicate with each other in these times. What stood out for me was how Kahneman described the difference between the experiencing self and the remembering self.
The Experiencing Self
“In one sense, well-being is something that you experience every second of your life: You are more or less happy. You are in a better or worse mood. And you can recall that continuously, and that’s the well-being of the experiencing self.” ~ Daniel Kahneman
Much of what I delve into in this blog has to do with the experiencing self – that part of us that lives life in the present moment. I recommend practices, mostly photographic, that help bring more awareness – sensory and emotional – so that our experience of life is deeper and richer. We learn to notice judgments (our opinions, perceptions, biases, etc.) and to let them go so as to see in new ways. These practices help us to be better photographers, and to get greater enjoyment out of our everyday lives. I find that they help me to remember, especially if I pay attention to sensory details.
The Remembering Self
“But then, there is another way of measuring well-being, which is to stop people and to ask them to think about their life and to say whether their life is good or bad. It’s completely different. That’s the well-being of the remembering self; it’s an act of memory and construction.” ~ Daniel Kahneman
The remembering self is that part of us with memories or recollections of past experiences. An intriguing result of Kahneman’s studies showed that our perception of an experience is coloured by how the experience ends, that is, how we felt about it near the end. This means that even if most of an experience was enjoyable, if it ends badly, that’s what you remember. On the flip side, if an experience was difficult, but ends well, you will think of it more positively. Childbirth is a good example of the latter. Every woman who has given birth can probably relate to how the healthy birth of a child puts the preceding pain in the background of her memory.
Every photograph is a memory. It’s a moment in time and we choose what and how to remember it. By how we compose, we are making sense of the experience; we’re attaching meaning. It isn’t the whole story, but it’s our story. By paying attention to life, to noticing the many wonders all around us, and photographing what we find, we create meaning.
So, which is more important – the experience or the memory?
Kahneman says that in the beginning he thought that the experiencing self was the one that dealt with the reality of life. And, experiencing the reality of life would be more important than what you thought about the experience. I’ve thought similarly. Yet, here’s what he discovered through his studies.
Deep down what most people want are good memories. They want a story of their life that has meaning.
So, what do I make of this? I believe that, by bringing more awareness to the experiencing self, we remember more. By noticing our perceptions and judgments about a situation, we can learn to see in new ways, and make meaning out of whatever happens. What really matters is how we think about an experience; how we remember it. We can choose how we look at something and decide on the meaning and memories we keep.
What do you think?
Join me: As we Celebrate Impermanence in November. 15 prompts to help you see the impermanence of life in a whole new way. Learn more here.
Listen: On Being Interview with Daniel Kahneman, Why We Contradict Ourselves and Confound Each Other
Read: Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman