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?