The Remembering Self and Time - Joe Abittan

The Remembering Self and Time

Time, as we have known it, has only been with human beings for a small slice of human history. The story of time zones is fascinating, and really began once rail roads connected the United States. Before we had a standardized system for operating within time, human lives were ruled by the cycle of the sun and the seasons, not by the hands of a watch. This is important because it suggests that the time bounds we put on our lives, the hours of our schedules and work days, and the way we think about the time duration of meetings, movies, a good night’s sleep, and flights is not something our species truly evolved to operate within.

 

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman shows one of the consequences of human history being out of sync with modern time. “The mind,” he writes, “is good with stories, but it does not appear to be well designed for the processing of time.”

 

I would argue that this makes sense and should be expected. Before we worked set schedules defined by the clock, before we could synchronize the start of a football game with TV broadcasts across the world, and before we all needed to be at the same place at precisely the right time to catch a departing train, time wasn’t very important. It was easy to tie time with sunrise, sunset, or mid-day compared to a 3:15 departure or a 7:05 kick-off. The passage of time also didn’t matter that much. The difference between being 64 and 65 years old wasn’t a big deal for humans that didn’t receive retirement benefits and social security payments. We did not evolve to live in a world where every minute of every day was tightly controlled by time and where the passage of time was tied so specifically to events in our lives.

 

For me, and I think for Daniel Kahneman, this may explain why we see some of the cognitive errors we make when we remember events from our past. Time wasn’t as important of a factor for ancient humans as story telling was. Kahneman continues,

 

“The remembering self, as I have described it, also tells stories and makes choices, and neither the stories nor the choices properly represent time. In storytelling mode, an episode is represented by a few critical moments, especially the beginning, the peak, and the end. Duration is neglected.”

 

When we think back on our lives, on moments that meant a lot to us, on times we want to relive, or on experiences we want to avoid in the future, we remember the salient details. We don’t necessarily remember how long everything lasted. My high school basketball days are not remembered by the hours spent running UCLAs, by the number of Saturdays I had to be up early for 8 a.m. practices, or by the hours spent in drills. My memories are made up of a few standout plays, games, and memorable team moments. The same is true for my college undergrad memories, the half-marathons I have raced, and my memories from previous homes I have lived in.

 

When we think about our lives we are not good at thinking about the passage of time, about how long we spent working on something, how long we had to endure difficulties, or how long the best parts of our lives lasted. We live with snapshots that can represent entire years or decades. Our remembering self drops the less meaningful parts of experiences from our memories, and holds onto the start, the end, and the best or worst moments from an experience. It distorts our understanding of our own history, and creates memories devoid of a sense of time or duration.

 

I think about this a lot because our minds and our memories are the things that drive how we behave and how we understand the present moment. However, duration neglect helps us see that reality of our lives is shaped by unreality. We are influenced by cognitive errors and biases, by poor memories, and distortions of time and experience. It is important to recognize how faulty our thinking can be, so we can develop systems, structures, and ways of thinking that don’t assume we are always correct, but help guide us toward better and more realistic ways of understanding the world.
The Remembering Self

More on the Remembering Self

Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow describes the remembering self as a tyrant, ruling what we do in the present moment by controlling our thoughts of the past. My last few posts have focused on how poorly we remember events from our past, and how we can be thought of as having an experiencing self and a remembering self. The experiencing self, the one that actually has to wake-up and get out of bed to face the day, is the one that actually lives our life. The remembering self only reflects back on what we have done. It doesn’t remember how awful writing all those school assignments was, it doesn’t remember how tired we were going to the gym for the fourth day in a row, and it doesn’t remember how pleasant it was to just relax for a whole day in front of the TV. Its memory is faulty, plagued by errors and biases in thinking, giving it a false sent of past experiences.

 

The remembering self doesn’t accurately remember the past, and it isn’t aware of itself or its separation from the experiencing self. It behaves and thinks much differently from the experiencing self, but within our minds, we don’t notice when we slip between the experiencing and remembering self, and we don’t realize how much we forget when we look back at our experiences. This creates problems when we think about how we should live, what we would like to do with our lives, and what our experiences have been. Kahneman writes,

 

“Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion – and it is the substitution that makes us believe a past experience can be ruined. 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.”

 

In my life, I want to look back and remember that I have done a lot of running. Many days, I don’t actually feel like getting out on a jog, but I know that in the future I will want to remember that I ran X number more miles in December of 2020 than I did in December of 2019. The experience of cold toes, of headlamp impressions on my forehead, and the hard work of running in the dark early mornings doesn’t matter to my remembering self. Those things will be diminished in my memory compared to the memory of having done something difficult and impressive. The fact that my remembering self has different priorities than my experiencing self is healthy with regard to running (as long as I don’t go overboard), but it can also be costly and even dangerous in our lives. The father who spends all his time working and neglects his children is being ruled by the remembering self in a similar way. He wants to remember himself as being hard working, as sacrificing for his family, and as being a successful high-earner. He gives up time he may enjoy hanging out with his kids, because the remembering self won’t remember that enjoyment as positively as the economic gains will be remembered from the extra hours of work, or as strongly as the social media pictures posted online. This example isn’t perfect, but it does contrast the way in which our remembering self can drive us toward unhealthy behaviors stemming from the remembering self’s more selfish take on our lives.