Daily Archives July 8, 2020

Glenn Randall atop Peak 12,847 in January with Kit Carson, Crestone Peak, and Crestone Needle behind, Sangre de Cristo Wilderness, Colorado

The Tyranny of the Remembering Self

Pause for a moment, and try this thought experiment. Imagine your perfect vacation. It could be anywhere in the world, doing anything you choose, for one week. There is a catch, however. You will not be allowed to take any photographs or make any entries in a journal during your vacation, and at the end you will be given a potion that will erase all memories of the wonderful experiences you enjoyed. How much would you pay for such a vacation, in comparison to what you would pay for a vacation you could remember?

Aurora over Mt. Monolith, Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon Territory, Canada

If you are like me, my wife, and our two adult daughters, nothing. To us, and to most people, the most wonderful experiences have little or no value if we cannot remember them. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out in his excellent book Thinking: Fast and Slow that we seem to have two selves, an experiencing self and a remembering self, whose needs and wants are not always congruent. As Kahneman puts it, “The experiencing self is the one that answers the question: ‘Does it hurt now?’ The remembering self is the one that answers the question: ‘How was it, on the whole?’ Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.” He goes on to say, “The experiencing self does not have a voice. The remembering self is sometimes wrong, but it is the one that keeps score and governs what we learn from living, and it is the one that makes decisions. What we learn from the past is to maximize the qualities of our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self.”

The full moon setting over Longs Peak from the summit of Twin Sisters, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Our remembering self tends to value an episode not by the duration of pleasurable and painful periods, but by the peak intensity of the good or bad feeling and by the feeling we experience at the end of the episode. Kahneman calls this “duration neglect” and the “peak-end rule.” We remember the peak moments of a vacation and its ending rather than an average of all the moments. Our average experience, even on a vacation we remember as great, may in fact be rather boring.

Does this help explain the almost universal fascination with photography? Kahneman writes, “The frenetic picture-taking of many tourists suggests that storing memories is often an important goal, which shapes both the plans for the vacation and the experience of it. The photographer does not view the scene as a moment to be savored but as a future memory to be designed. Pictures may be useful to the remembering self—though we rarely look at them for very long, or as often as we expected, or even at all—but picture taking is not necessarily the best way for the tourist’s experiencing self to enjoy a view.”

Mt. Sneffels at sunset, Mt. Sneffels Wilderness, Colorado