Friday, February 11, 2011

The Riddle of Experience vs Memory

Everybody talks about happiness these days. There is a huge wave of interest among many people including researchers to study happiness and what makes us, we human beings happy. But in spite of this flood of work, there are few cognitive traps that almost make it impossible to think straight about happiness. It applies to lay people like us and to scholar as well. Turns out that scholars are as messed up as anybody else.

One among these traps is the confusion between experience and memory. Basically the confusion is between being happy in your life and being happy about your life or happy with your life. These two are very different concepts and both get lumped in the notion of happiness. This can be illustrated by an example in which one person describes about her experience about a musical rendition. She said she had been listening to a symphony and it was an absolutely glorious music. At the end of the recording there was dreadful screeching sound. And then she added quite emotionally – “it ruined the whole experience!!” But it hadn’t. What it had ruined was the memory of the experience. She had had the experience. She had had the experience of twenty minutes of glorious music that counted for nothing because she was left with a memory. The memory was ruined and the memory was all that she had gotten to keep.

What this is really telling us is that we should be thinking about our experiences in terms of two selves. There is an ‘experiencing self’ who lives in the present, knows the present, capable of reliving the past, but basically has only the transient present. It is the experiencing self that the doctor approaches when she asks ‘does it hurt when I touch you here?’ And then there is the ‘remembering self’ that keeps score, maintains the story of our life. It is what the doctor approaches when he asks ‘how have you been feeling lately?’ or ‘how was your trip to Egypt (pre or post Mubarak)?’ These are two very different entities and getting confused about them is part of the mess about the notion of happiness.

The remembering self is a story teller. That really starts with the basic response of our memory. We don’t tell a story only when we set out to tell a story; our memory tells our story. What we get to keep from our experience is the story. Let us explain this with an example. This is an old study that was conducted on actual patients undergoing colonoscopy (which used to be a painful procedure till 1990s when these tests were conducted, thankfully they are no longer as painful). The patients were asked to report their pain every 60 seconds. Here are the two patients and these are their recordings. If you are asked who out of these two patients suffered more, you would not take a moment to answer. Clearly patient B (the lower one) suffered more. Her colonoscopy was longer and every minute of pain A had B had that and more. Now there is another question.  How much did these patients think they suffered? And here is a surprize. Patient A had a much worse memory of the pain than patient B. In case of A the story is worse because her colonoscopy ended with the pain at its peak. These patients were asked about their experiences immediately after the procedure and much later too. It was much worse for patient A than B in memory.

Now this is in direct conflict between experiencing self and remembering self. From the experiencing self-point of view, clearly B had a much worse time. Now what you could do with patient A (and actually it was done) is to extend the colonoscopy by keeping the tube in without jiggling it too much. That will cause the patient to suffer, but just a little, and much less than before. If you do that for a couple of minutes, you have made the experiencing self of patient A worse off and the remembering self of patient A a lot better off. Because now you have endowed patient A with a much better story about her experience.

What defines a story (that is delivered by our memory)? The main factors that define a story are changes, significant moments and endings; endings are very very important. In our example, quite evidently, the ending dominated. The experiencing self lives its life continuously. It has moments of experience one after the other. You can ask what happens to these moments. The answer is really straight forward- they are lost forever. Most of them don’t leave a trace. Most of them are completely ignored by the remembering self. And yet, somehow you get a sense that they should count. What happens through these moments of experience is our life. It is a finite resource that we are spending while we are on this earth. And how to spend them should be relevant. But that is not the story the remembering self keeps for us.

The biggest difference between experiencing self and remembering self is the handling of time. From the point of view of the experiencing self, if you have a vacation, and the second week is just as good as the first, then the two week vacation is twice as good as one week vacation. That’s not the way it works for the remembering self. For the remembering self the two weeks’ vacation is barely better than one week vacation because there are no new memories added, you have not changed the story. And in this way time is actually the critical variable that distinguishes the experiencing self from remembering self. Time has a very little impact on the story.

The remembering self actually does more than remembering and telling stories; it is the one that takes decisions. Consider a patient who had two colonoscopies with two different surgeons and is now deciding whom to choose for the third procedure. He would surely choose the surgeon with whom her memory is less bad. The experiencing self has no voice in this choice. We actually don’t choose between experiences; we choose between memories of experiences. And even when we think about our future, we don’t look at it from the point of experience. We think of our future as anticipated memories. We can think of it as a tyranny of the remembering self and remembering self dragging experiencing self through experiences that the experiencing self doesn’t need.

The two selves bring two different notions of happiness. Two different concepts of happiness, one per self. We can ask questions related to happiness of the experiencing self (that can now be measured). If you ask questions about the happiness of the remembering self, it is a completely different matter. The happiness of the remembering self is not about how happily a person lives, rather it is about how satisfied or pleased a person is when she thinks about her life. For example a happy person, when asked to rate her life, says that her life was not fulfilling because she never went to college.  

The distinction between the happiness of the remembering self and the experiencing self has been recognised in recent years. There are now efforts to measure these separately. The main lesson that we have learnt is that remembering self and experiencing are really different. You can know how satisfied a person is with her life and that really does not tell you much about her experiences in life and vice versa. Just to get a sense of correlation between the two, (which is about .5) we can draw an example. For example if you are going to meet somebody and you are told her father is six feet tall- how much would you know about her height? You would know something about her height but there will still be a lot of uncertainty about her height. You have that much uncertainty about her experiences if I tell you that she has rated her life 8 on a scale of 0 to 10.

Who thought understanding happiness could be such a complicated business!! 

This article is inspired by a talk delivered by Prof. Daniel Kahneman, winner of the nobel prize in economics in 2002.

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