Psychologist, Nobel laureate (in economics), and happiness researcher Daniel Kahneman describes a interesting thought experiment in his fascinating TED video, "The riddle of experience vs. memory."
It seems to point to something really important about life, spirituality, meaning, well-being, and all that. I just can't quite figure out what it is -- which probably is a result of me being immersed in the riddle of experience vs. memory, as all of us are.
That is, I got an intuitive flash when I heard Kahneman talk about the thought experiment, but when I reflect upon it, as I am now, I'm focusing on a different side of me, the one that remembers intuitive flashes and tries to make sense of them.
Kahneman distinguishes the "experiencing self" and the "remembering self." Here's how Winifred Gallagher spoke of these selves (I'm quoting from an earlier blog post of mine on this subject.)
First, there's a gap between your real life and the stories you tell yourself about it, and you're apt to fixate on the latter. Stressing the importance of this divide, Kahneman says, "Attention both to what you choose to experience and what you choose to think about it is at the very core of how I approach questions of well-being." He traces this disconnect between reality and your thoughts about it to two different selves that pay attention to different kinds of things.
Your hands-on "experiencing self," which concentrates on just plain being in the here and now, is absorbed in whatever is going on and how you feel about it without much analysis. Your evaluative "remembering self," however looks back on an experience, focuses on its emotional high points and outcomes, then formulates thoughts about it, not always accurately.
The thought experiment is this: consider a vacation that you're planning. Then imagine that after your vacation is over, all of your photos and other mementos of it will be destroyed. Not only that, your very memories of the vacation will be obliterated through an amnesiac drug.
Would you still go on the vacation? If you have trouble answering this question, this points to a need to adjudicate a conflict between your experiencing and remembering selves.
In a milder sense, my wife and I face this conflict whenever we go to our habitual vacation spot on Maui, Napili Bay. Mostly we sit on the beach, not doing much of anything except enjoying the warmth and people/ocean watching. I boogie board, as I've done many times before; my wife snorkels, as she's done many times before.
When we return home, we don't have many travel stories to tell. No adventures to relate, no "you won't believe what happened..." tales.
However, we hugely enjoy our not-much-of-anything experience while we're on Maui. The lack is when it comes time to answer someone's question, "How was your vacation?" If it was important to us to entertain our friends and relatives with a fascinating slide show of our travels, we'd head somewhere that would buttress our remembering selves.
As it is, we favor our experiencing selves. So probably we'd be more likely to take a pleasant vacation that ended in amnesia than people focused on memories, photos, vivid stories, and such would be.
When I try to relate the thought experiment to spirituality, several notions come to mind.
First, religiously-minded people seem to be big on keeping their remembering selves happy. When it comes to their faith, they aren't centered on the here and now, but on the there and then. Heaven, satori, paradise, enlightenment, self- or God-realization -- these aren't experiences but anticipations (rarely, perhaps, memories, though I'm skeptical of this).
When true-believers get together, there is lots of talk of what is to come, what needs to be done, what happened in the past. Such is the core content of sermons and other sorts of inspirational gatherings. Happily experiencing the present moment wordlessly and nonconceptually isn't part of most religions (Buddhism being a possible exception).
Second, there's nothing wrong with this. We humans are complex. We are divided in many ways. Daniel Kahneman's new book is "Thinking, Fast and Slow." Amazon just delivered it to my door. The cover jacket says:
Kahneman takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional. System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical... Kahneman reveals where we can and cannot trust our intuitions and how can tap into the benefits of slow thinking.
Life has many facets. There's a place for raw experience, and a place for considered contemplation. There's a time for immediate intuition, and a time for step-by-step rationality.
If the options involved in the amnesiac vacation thought experiment are difficult to choose between -- is a wonderful experience worth having if we don't remember it? -- seemingly this is because both sides of ourselves are important, vital, and central to being human.
We experience. And we remember. We value the here and now. And also the there and then.
We may have some choice as to what we focus on, but where the balance falls between our experiencing and remembering selves likely is determined by forces beyond our control. (Guess I need to read Kahneman's book to learn if this is true.)
Here's a passage from the book that I came across while browsing through it just now. I love the "stranger to me" mention. Intuition tells me that my experiencing self is more important than I often look upon it. But, hey, that's my experiencing self talking, so what else would I expect?
For another thought experiment, imagine that you face a painful operation during which you will remain conscious. You are told you will scream in pain and beg the surgeon to stop. However, you are promised an amnesia-inducing drug that will completely wipe out any memory of the episode. How do you feel about such a prospect?
Here again, my informal observation is that most people are remarkably indifferent to the pains of their experiencing self. Some say they don't care at all. Others share my feeling, which is that I feel pity for my suffering self but not more than I would feel for a stranger in pain. 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 these notions fascinate you as much as they do me, take twenty minutes and watch Kahneman's TED video: