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?
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.”
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.”
Kahneman’s insight also helps explain why landscape photographers who wish to evoke emotion in their viewers must work so hard to capture extraordinary and often fleeting moments. Capturing what tourists actually see during their vacation is useless, since that is not what tourists remember. Few tourists witness sunrise at a backcountry lake several miles from the trailhead. At best, they glimpse some colorful clouds from their hotel window. But it is the photograph of sunrise at the backcountry lake that will trigger pleasurable memories of their vacation, not the photo taken at 12 noon, when most tourists actually arrive at their destination. It is as if the colorful clouds glimpsed from their hotel at dawn become merged in their memory with the beautiful lake they saw in noon light.
I have often noted that the act of photographing a beautiful sunrise dulls my appreciation of the moment while I am experiencing it because I am so focused on the technical and aesthetic challenge of making a compelling image—yet the photographs I make strongly enhance my ability to remember and enjoy the experience later. I almost enjoy the shoot more after it’s over, as I view my photographs, than I enjoyed it at the time.
Is this a bad trade-off? Is Kahneman correct when he writes, “Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me”? If so, then photography, with its ability to capture a moment and hold it still forever, can indeed enrich our lives. But I still have a disturbing feeling that spending one’s life doing nothing but accumulating memories, to be enjoyed in a future that may never come, leaves out something important. We are often advised by pop psychologists to “live in the moment,” as if that was somehow the secret of happiness. Perhaps someday I will become so fluent with the language of light and composition that the act of photographing will feel effortless, like a Zen archer drawing and releasing his bow, totally at one with his target. Until then, I will continue to struggle with the uneasy choice between experiencing a moment and creating a photographic memory of it.
Glenn Randall has been a full-time photographer, writer, and instructor for 41 years. Over 2,000 of his photographs have been published, including 84 covers, and he’s sold over 10,000 prints. His most recent book is the second edition of The Art, Science, and Craft of Great Landscape Photography, published by Rocky Nook in April 2020. He is also the author of Dusk to Dawn: A Guide to Landscape Photography at Night, also published by Rocky Nook. You can learn more about his work, sign up for his newsletter, and register for his workshops at GlennRandall.com.