Anna Koop

April 15, 2011

The Experiencing self vs the Remembering self

Filed under: Research

Just watched a brilliant Ted talk by Daniel Kahneman: The riddle of experience vs. memory.

The upshot: there’s a difference between your experiences and your memory of your experience. So much most people know already. But it has ramifications far broader than we realized. Your experience determines your transient happiness or well-being. The story you tell yourself determines your long-term satisfaction. Probably this relates to Seligman’s distinctions in kinds of happiness: the pleasant, engaged, and meaningful life.

He has a simple example in the talk: colonoscopies. Used to be quite painful. Patient A had a quick one that ended on a high-pain note. Patient B had the same high-pain but the treatment went on longer, ending in middling pain. Guess who had a better memory? Patient B. Because the ending is the part that sticks with you. This matches Dan Ariely’s findings that pulling off a bandage slower is better. We remember intensity more than duration.

I’ve been toying lately with the idea that the conscious self (glances around quickly to see if Rich is watching) is more like the story, the construction or projection we make from our experience. This gets tricky to talk about because of course you assume I mean the conscious “I” when I use first or second person. Oh well.

In these terms: we have our sensorimotor experience and our mind makes of that what it will. Part of what our mind makes of our sensorimotor experience is the elaborate explanations for it, including ideas about chairs and tables and “I”. “I” am the remembering self, not the experiencing self. The experiencing self has a transient and dynamic existence. But it does inform the remembering self, of course. They’re just not mapped together exactly.

Something like “I think, therefore I am; my agency experiences, therefore it is.”

So who is the boss? Kahneman makes the point that the experiencing self makes a lot of sacrifices on behalf of the remembering self—three weeks of vacation for a few hours of memories spread over a lifetime? On the other hand, when we pursue pleasure over purpose we’ve flipped those priorities around. So probably the classic: It. Depends.

People probably don’t want to think of themselves as emergent. But being emergent doesn’t mean less real than being constructed directly. Nor less important.

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