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The Tyranny of the Remembering Self

Updated: Feb 14, 2021


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

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."