On the Riddle of Experience vs. Memory 14

I RECENTLY RE-WATCHED Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s 2010 TED talk on “The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory,” which 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).

He places his conversation in the context of our perception of happiness. There is a difference, he says, between being happy IN life and being happy ABOUT our life. And this comes about because of a “cognitive trap” that confuses the experiencing self with the memory self.

The psychological present is about three seconds long, and we have over 600 million of these moments in a lifetime, so the majority of our experiences are completely forgotten. Gone. Lost forever. Our memories, according to Kahneman, are actually stories that we tell ourselves about our experiences — a process that begins immediately following an experience and sometimes while it occurs. These stories are “what we get to keep from our experiences.”

He goes on to say that a story is defined by beginnings, changes, and endings (we writers understand this), and 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. The story we take away from our experience is negative. So we have discrepancies between what we actually experience and what we remember.

And when we look forward to the future, we are looking forward to the stories our remembering self will take away from our experiences, not the experiences themselves. 

As a journal-keeper and memoirist, I find this entire concept fascinating. Journaling and memoir writing both attempt to keep our experiences alive and meaningful through the mechanism of story.

We memoirists understand that our memories are fallible, especially those of events in the distant past. But what about memories captured through journaling? In writing about these events as they occur, we are trying to capture some of the “experiencing self.” And since this journal writing is closer in time to our experiences than memories plucked from the past, does journaling keep our memories (and thus, our stories) more honest? Or are our life experiences already tucked away in our minds as memory stories before we’ve even had a chance to get out our pens? It seems logical that our experiences captured through journaling would be more immediate, fresher, more true to our experience. But I wonder . . .

Anyway, I’d love to know what you think about all this.

Watch the 20-minute video — it’s worth the time — then let’s discuss in the comments section below. 


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

14 thoughts on “On the Riddle of Experience vs. Memory

  • 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?

  • Sara Etgen-Baker

    Thanks, Amber, for clarifying the riddle 🙂 Seriously, you helped me understand the difference between experience versus memory. Enlightening!

  • Howard Veit

    Amber, I have been spending lots of time recently reading about mindfulness and its psychological benefits.

    Kahneman puts a interesting perspective on the subject, asking about how we evaluate happiness, i.e., by remembering the past or evaluating what is happening at the moment. To me journaling allows me to focus on the present in an especially intense and satisfying manner. I view it as a form of meditation. But, it is more than that.

    The digital journaling program that I use, Day One, has a feature called On This Day, which provides a daily link to my posts of one year ago. Each day I not only “live in the present moment” by recording my activities and my feelings, but I can relive memories. My memories are not always positive, but they are often beneficial to what I am dealing with today. Journaling can bring out the best of both the present moment and our memories.

    As I read back on my posts of the past, I am often reminded that I need to do a better job of recording my feelings in addition to my experiences. To this extent the memories are instructive and help me improve my journaling and my life going forward. So journaling is mindful, memory enhancing and instructional. I would say that all of this enhances ‘happiness’.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Howard, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic as well as your journaling processes. You and I have had opposite challenges with our journaling — In the past, I have tended to focus too much on feelings, while not providing enough detail about related life events — not enough context. So I have been intentional about including descriptions of daily happenings, as well as some social context (news, etc.) Reading past journal entries can be really instructive. Each month I read my entries from the same month of the previous year. I’m always amazed at how far I’ve come or how much has happened since then. It would be equally interesting to see last year’s entries on a daily basis as well.

      And I agree. Journaling can bring out the best in both the present and the past. That is one of the things I love about it.

  • Melissa Montana

    Interesting thought. However, journaling only works when the writer is willing and able to be brutally honest with herself. I had the unpleasant experience of reading old journals of mine, and thinking “Who is this sick, deranged person?!” A lot of things that didn’t happen (delusions), and complete denial of reality on those that did. I was under severe stress at the time, and with the help of a therapist, found out I was doing on paper what my alcoholic, abusive family had taught me to do in real life: lie, enable, make excuses, and deny. I was lying to myself. I still journal, but I am aware that this is my memories and perception, and not anyone else’s. I tell myself the truth, even if it hurts, but I understand I may need to keep that truth private to avoid harming others. I am mentally ill, and I have days when I write “crazy,” but my therapist says that’s fine, as long as I don’t make it public. And yes, I have learned that, due to childhood trauma, I cannot trust my memories. I wonder how many others out there are writing “tell-all” memoirs who are blind to this fact? (Btw, I destroyed the old journals.)

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Melissa, thank you for joining the conversation. I agree that journaling works when we’re willing and able to be truly honest with ourselves. “Able” is a key word in that statement, as we can only be as honest as we have self-awareness and the ability to look into ourselves without hiding. Could it be that honesty, like perception, is somewhat relative? Perhaps a deeper form of honesty occurs when we question our perceptions — not whether something is “real” or not, because our experiences are certainly real to us — but the “why” and the “how” of our perceptions. To ask what underlying assumptions are framing our view and then examine those assumptions. Examine how our emotional responses and reactions have influenced our behaviors. And of course, all of this is guided by the stories we tell ourselves. Our memoirs are our true stories, as told to ourselves. And I think most memoirists understand this fact.

  • Neil Yemm

    In the video, when he said that the memory self can be manipulated into thinking something opposite that the graph showed, lightbulb.I think it should be called the reasonable self vs. the deceived self. this information is very important.. For the record, I don’t think the policy makers will be enthusiastic about it.
    There is a famous author by the name of Leo Tolstoy. You might have read his fictional novels, however his non-fictional works later in his career were masterful. The Gospel In Brief, My religion, The Kingdom of God is Within You are all around this idea.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Neil, thank you for your comment. Yes, I supposed the reasonable vs the deceived would be one way of looking at it. I have read Leo Tolstoy’s fiction, but not his nonfiction. Thank you for the recommendations.