Experience, Memory, and maybe Situation

Via this episode of A Show with Zefrank, I came across this really interesting talk by Daniel Kahneman at TED:

Kahneman is talking about the study of happiness and how that is fraught with problems, but the thing I’m particularly interested in is the distinction he makes between our “experiencing self” and our “remembering self.”  I’ve never heard this one before.  To summarize these two summaries: the experiencing self is the “right now” and only lasts about 3 seconds at a time.  The remembering self is the part of your self that puts together the narrative of a life, and it does this by picking and choosing particular segments of your experiencing self– and, by definition, discarding most experiences. One of the rather odd features of this paradigm is that memories drive experiences.  To quote from zefrank quoting Kaheman, “We don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences  Even when we think about the future, we don’t think of our future normally as experiences.  We think of our future as anticipated memories.”  In the video I link to above here, Kaheman talks about this in relationship to happiness and also how we think of past experiences like surgeries and vacations– it makes sense, believe me. Kaheman goes on to describe the “tyranny” of the remembering self with what I think is another pretty compelling example:  we often experience things more for their value as a memory than for their value as an experience, though we spend much more time actually experiencing (and discarding those experiences) than we do remembering.  The example Kaheman has is a particularly memorable vacation that he went on to the Antarctic:  it lasted three weeks, but he says he has only “consumed” those memories for 25 minutes.  And as zefrank observes, we all force our experiencing selves to do certain things only so that we can have the memory as opposed to the value of the experience itself.

Another example that immediately comes to mind is writing.  We tend to block out the bulk of the actual experience, focusing in on break-throughs and good moments (or especially bad ones, I suppose), and I think just about all writers prefer to have written to the actual act of writing.

Now, I am assuming that Kaheman intends us to view all this imprecisely and perhaps even metaphorically:  that is, I don’t know if your experiencing self really only lasts for 3 seconds, how much time your remembering self re-experiencing things, etc., not to mention that I suspect the division between the experiencing self and remembering self has to be a bit fuzzy.  I mean, what do you call those experiences where you are remembering in the first place?  Doesn’t the act of remembering itself have to be “an experience,” so to speak? But this does get me going in thinking about rhetorical situation, especially in relation to immediacy, not to mention writing itself.  I’m not sure I have the right way to explain this yet, but what Kaheman is saying here for me helps to reconcile the either/or dichotomy of the origins of situations as discussed by Vatz and Bitzer.  Bitzer argues that situations exist prior or our recognition of them and we make rhetoric out of them, and Vatz argues the opposite.  But maybe both are correct in that rhetorical situations are born in the experience self (thus Bitzer’s argument) but can only be acted on by the memory self (Vatz’s argument).

Or maybe it points to the reason why we can’t really make sense out of most rhetorical situations until after they reach some point of closure because really, experiencing self doesn’t make much “sense” out of anything.  It experiences and that’s that, while the only way to mediate experiences– that is, for audiences to make meaning of the message/event of rhetors (think of the triangle here, people)– is via the remembering self.  Remember (no pun intended), if the experiencing self is happening every 3 or so second, what other choice would we possibly have?

So, maybe the point of various memory technologies is to extend that experiencing self into longer bits of time, or to at least assist the remembering self into finding clearer meaning in moments.  Think of stop-action photography:  an apple being shot or other similar things takes on a different meaning when mediated through a specific technology like high-speed photography.  The experiencing self is not at all capable of capturing this kind of detail, but I would assume that if you witnessed the event life the remembering self would sew together the experiencing self with the image?  Maybe?

Anyway, I think I need to read some more of this stuff….

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2 Responses to Experience, Memory, and maybe Situation

  1. collin says:

    I just started Thinking Fast and Slow, and am enjoying it so far.

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