Blogtalk: Memory and Moments 6

Yesterday, Shirley Hershey Showalter shared a fascinating TED video (re-posted below) on her blog 100 Memoirs. The video, a talk by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, is about the difference between what he calls the “experiencing self” (that part of us that experiences life moment by moment) and the “memory self” (that part of us that remembers our experiences).

Shirley posits that memoirists attempt to recapture enough of the “experiencing self” to relive their pasts. I suppose that may be true of experiences that we remember as pleasant, but what about all the memoirs of trauma and tragedy? Do we really want to relive those awful moments? I think it’s more likely that we’re trying to understand our memories.

Dr. Kahneman says the psychological present is about three seconds long, with most of our experiences forgotten soon after, and that our memories are actually stories that we tell ourselves about our experiences. These stories are, in essence, “what we get to keep from our experiences.”

He goes on to say that a story is defined by beginnings, changes, and endings (yes, we writers understand this), but he also says that how an experience ends is often how we remember it. So, for example, we may experience a perfectly wonderful day but, at the end of the day, get a flat tire on the way home. Suddenly, we are “having a bad day,” and that is how we remember it. So we have discrepancies between what we actually experience and what we remember.

Those of us who write memoir know that our memories are fallible. And this talk is a fascinating glimpse at the nature of memory. As a journal keeper and one who promotes journal writing (as well all other forms of writing), I’d like to take this idea one step further.

In light of the fact that our journal writing is closer in time to our experiences than our later memories are, does journaling keep our memories (thus, our stories) more honest? Or are they already tucked away in our minds as memory stories before we’ve had a chance to get out our pens? It seems that our stories would be more immediate, fresher, more true to our experience. But I wonder …

Watch the 20-minute video — it’s worth the time — then leave a comment. What do you think?


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6 thoughts on “Blogtalk: Memory and Moments

  • Shirley

    Amber, thanks for picking up the conversation here on your blog. You are right about the distinction between reliving and understanding our memories. Certainly if our memories are sad or traumatic we don’t want to relive them! I think journaling could help capture a little more of the experiencing self, and it certainly helps in our understanding, both in the immediate aftermath of the experience and upon reflection.

    Thanks, too, for reminding me about the importance of endings. I guess it’s really true that “All’s Well that Ends Well.”

  • Nicole R. Zimmerman

    Thanks for sharing these insights, especially “our memories are actually stories that we tell ourselves about our experiences” -wow. In my experience, the writing of memories certainly evokes a better understanding of events and my place in them. And while I don’t especially ‘enjoy’ re-experiencing the difficult emotions dredged up by reliving the tragic moments via writing, I do find that it can be a necessary aspect of getting close to the story. What is provoked in the retelling becomes an opportunity for healing it. I think we sometimes remember and re-tell our tragedies in an effort to move past them, and writing offers an externalization of memories that can reshape our experience.

  • Sara Etgen-Baker

    This video was fascinating and enlightening as were the posted comments. I agree that in writing a memoir I retell a past event with present eyes and, in so doing, reshape the original experience and possibly create a different memory. That’s why when my siblings and I retell the same experience, the stories are different because we are seeing the memory with vastly different present day eyes clouded by different choices along life’s pathway. Am I making sense here? 🙂 Sigh….

    • Amber Lea Starfire

      Yes, Sara, you are. Not only do we experience the events differently (i.e., in that moment your brother and you would probably have told the event from different perspectives), but when we pull those memories out of our pockets and retell them, we shape them further.

      It sure makes you wonder how much of our memories are really just made up stories to makes sense of things, and how many are real. And does it even matter?