A few months ago I wrote an article titled “Memories and time” discussing the relationship of time and how we view our lives over time.
I recently read “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Nobel loriate Daniel Kahneman, which is a fantastic 500 page book on behavioral economics and science. It is pure psychology, and is full of studies and analysis of how humans make decisions, rationale, and think. The book has a whole table of food for thought, and got me thinking about many things, including the motivation to write this post.
Our experiencing life is our consciousness, and how we consciously perceive the world over moments of time. It can be painful, happy, sad, slow, fast, or enlightening at any given moment in time. Our stream of consciousness is an ongoing thing from the moment consciousness appears in ourselves to the moment we die (or lose permanent consciousness).
Our remembering life is what we remember and look back on throughout our life. As mentioned in the Memories and Time article, humans remember a small fragment of all experience. Our remembering life is what determines how satisfied we are with a vacation, a dinner, a relationship, or an upbringing.
Experiencing and remembering are 2 different things. How an experience actually happened isn’t necessarily how we remember it. In fact, it’s well known in psychology that we don’t remember things very accurately to how they actually happened, and over time we change how we describe experiences without even noticing it. Not only this, memories are moved around our brain over time, depending on how frequently we recall them.
Philosophical sidenote: When you’re having surgery and are given anaesthesia, do you experience no pain, or is it that you experience pain but after surgery you don’t remember it?
Our brains our wired to remember things that are important and useful to our survival. Because the vast majority of routine experience is not critical and is often habitual, our brains adapt to no longer spend much cognitive energy storing the memories and instead can focus on learning new things, remembering new things, and understanding new things. It is this fact as to why we don’t remember most of the time in our lives, even though we view our lives only by what we remember.
Another interesting thing of the remembering “self” is that we often judge how good an entire experience was by how it ended, not by the overall experience. Kahneman calls this the Peak End Rule – how an experience ends seems to hold greater weight in our memory than how an experience was lived. For example, if you have an amazing marriage for 5 years, only for it to end in a cheating spouse, a broken family, a lost job, and other misery, you’ll tend to look back on the experience of marriage in a negative light, even if 5 years of it was a great experience.
In Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman describes an experiment he ran, which demonstrates the peak end rule:
We asked people to immerse their hands up to their wrists in cold water, water at 14 degrees Celsius. At one occasion, they had water at 14 degrees Celsius. It is extremely cold. It’s tolerable, but it hurts. Then, 7 minutes later we bring them in and we give them another experience. The other experience would be 1 minute at 14 degrees just the same as before, but instead of telling people as we had on the other occasion, take your hand out here is a warm towel, dry yourself, we did something else. We opened a valve and during the next 30 seconds the water became very slightly warmer. In fact, it got to 15 degrees Celsius. So, they had an experience that was strictly worse than the other experience. One is 60 seconds of pain then 30 seconds of diminishing pain but, still painful, not as good as warming your hand with a towel. Then you wait another 7 minutes and you come to those people and you say, well, you can choose either the experience with your left hand or the experience you had with your left hand. What do you choose? The larger majority of them, choose to expose themselves to the longer experience. That is they choose to expose themselves to more pain. Why? It’s because it ended well. When we tell ourselves stories, how they end is extremely important. So, you can take a bad story and make it better by adding suffering so long as the suffering that you are adding is diminishing, so that it ends as an improvement.
…this is the way that people think about lives. Think about the role of endings in life. So, you have the mother and the daughter and they haven’t been speaking to each other for years and the mother is dying and now they get reconciled and they have an hour together where they are at peace this is enormously important to us. The fact that the mother had the experience before she died of meeting her daughter again and loving her daughter again. Now, if you stop to think about it, the emphasis that we put on that is ridiculous. One hour and they were estranged for years and years , but what we think about, what our remembering self thinks about it thinks in stories and the story of the mother is very different when it ends that way. We are story tellers.
To show this a bit more clearly, I made 2 quick graphs:
Example A above is a plot of enjoyment at moments over time. Imagine if every second for 2 weeks during a vacation you asked someone on a scale of 1 to 10 how they felt, and the above shows their experience. The area under the curve represents the total amount of enjoyment experienced. Notice at the end how the enjoyment nearly doubled.
Example B above similar to A in that it plots enjoyment over time for a vacation, theoretically asking a person every second for 2 weeks. Notice how the enjoyment over time is nearly double that of A, and that at the end of B the enjoyment drops.
If you ask the person who experienced A above, they would very likely describe their experience as very enjoyable. If you ask the person who experienced B above, they would very likely describe it as average, or maybe even as less enjoyable than A even though they experienced twice as much enjoyment. Remember that the remembering self is influenced by how an experience ends since that is what is often remembered, while the experiencing self is moment to moment but is mostly not remembered.
So, do we judge the best experience by the remembering self or experiencing self? If living in the present is the happiest way to live, the experiencing self would give the greatest total amount of enjoyment if you plotted the enjoyment at each moment over time. But if after an experience we only have the remembering self, which is distorted in many ways and is biased by how an experience ends, how do we overcome this issue?
I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me
– Daniel Kahneman
Make sure your experiences end well to start, because that certainly influences our remembering self. Balance between creating memories, and being present. Being present is all there is, it is what our lives really are in the moment. But our remembering self is all we see of our life, and it is our life (without memory who are we?). The question is, do you stop to take a picture (for a later memory as part of the “remembering self”), or do you keep the phone in our pocket and cherish the present moment, distraction free?
Which factor leads to a happier life: duration or experiences? Would a 20 year life with many happy experiences be better than a 60 year life with many terrible experiences? Which would you rather be: happy or old? We are terrible at predicting what will make us happy, so these questions are more thought provoking than having clear correct answers.
I’ve uploaded Chapter 35 of the Thinking Fast and Slow audiobook below, which if you’ve made it this far, you’ll likely find intriguing. Thanks for reading.