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.