Episode 10 – Is human memory reliable? Experiencing vs remembering self | Cognitive biases #3 (10 min)

The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: It is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant.

Salvador Dalí

Another standalone episode in our series about human cognitive biases and logical fallacies. And I dare say, this is amongst the most “useful” episodes I would do in this series.

If you let it, the concept covered in these ten minutes has the power to change the way you’ve been thinking about your life thus far.

Am I exaggerating? Only one way to find out. Tune right in.

I’ll see you in the playground.

experiencing and remembering selves, is human memory reliable, cognitive biases

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When it comes to any experience, all of us have two selves. One is the self that is having the experience in the moment, which we can call the experiencing self. Another is the self that remembers that experience, which we can call the remembering self.

And believe it or not, they are both different. To confuse one with the other is a very strong cognitive illusion that we labour under in our everyday lives.

What you remember about the past is simply that – what you remember about it. It might not necessarily be true to what you actually experienced then. Especially the adjectives you use to describe the experience now, might not really be accurate and do justice to the actual experience. 

In fact, there is a strong recency bias when it comes to our memory of an experience. That is, our memory of an experience is very likely to be overshadowed by how the experience was towards the end, rather than how the experience actually was.

I first came across this idea of the two selves – the remembering self and the experiencing self – in that book by Daniel Kahneman – Thinking, fast and slow. 

In one section of this book, he described a certain experiment which brought home this point quite well. 

To paraphrase it, the experiment had students dip one hand in uncomfortably cold water for 60 seconds. The students would then remove their hand and be offered a warm dry towel.

After a few minutes, they were asked to dip their other hand in the same uncomfortably cold water for the same 60 seconds but in this trial, after the 60 seconds, instead of taking the hand out, a tap was opened which poured warm water in the tub for the next 30 seconds that raised the temperature of the cold water by a few degrees so that the discomfort was lowered. They were then asked to withdraw their hand and were offered a similar warm dry towel like the first trial.

And then, after a few minutes, they were given a choice to have one of these experiences repeated again for the third trial.

If I remember correctly, close to 80% of the participants chose to repeat the second experience, even though that involved an unnecessary 30 seconds of discomfort. The reasoning is quite simple – the second experience leaves a better, warmer memory than the first and the self that takes the decision for the third trial IS the remembering self and not the experiencing self. And the remembering self thinks what it remembers IS all that ever happened, which could be true in some circumstances but could also be false in others.

Being aware of this can help us identify the faults in the way we act out in the world.

A personal experience comes to my mind which fits the bill here. Allow me to share. 

I once worked for a company, and I had a great time working there, especially for let’s say, three quarters of the time. It was only during the last phase that I had a fallout with some of the people there (and there were a whole bunch of reasons for that too – I’m sure I wasn’t my best self too around that time). 

But anyway, after I had moved out of that job, whenever someone would ask me about my experience at that company, I would mostly be critical of the culture, the management, etc. It was when I started meditating and paying attention to my own thoughts that I realised that this narrative, like a lot of other narratives in my mind, was coming from a very incomplete standpoint. 

Of course my last memories with that company weren’t too rosy, but I sure had a great time for the majority of the time I worked there. And the fact that I was so easily polishing over all this with the comfortable narrative purely based out of my “remembering self” surely did open my eyes to say the least.

Realisations such as this are quite literally the point of this entire series I’m running on this podcast currently. To be aware of your own biases and illusions is important. The point to being more self aware is not to feel low about yourself or even to feel superior now that you’re aware of so much more than others. 

It is simply to be aware, to be aware of the truth, aware of the facts about how your own thinking works and aware of how the human mind works in general. Wherever that awareness leads you to, should again tell you more about your own nature than about anything else.

Back to memories, experiences and the two selves, one more example which comes to my mind about this very important cognitive bias is one that I read in David Eagleman’s book, The Brain. 

He talks about a hypothetical situation where you are invited by a friend to her birthday dinner, where she’s with her boyfriend and you guys sit together, have a great time, share a few laughs, have good food, etc. He then builds it up by asking us to imagine that a year has passed since that dinner, and your friend and her boyfriend have since then had a pretty nasty falling out and are no longer together. 

And then he points out that it is entirely possible that your memory of that birthday dinner is now coloured by this new piece of information. It is very likely that you might think that even back then, you could see clues that this guy is a good-for-nothing douchebag who might even cheat on your friend if the opportunity arises. 

And it is very likely that you may start to consider all of these thoughts to be true because your remembering self is what is always activated in such scenarios, never your experiencing self. 

The experiencing self had the experience of that great dinner, and left memories for the remembering self. And the remembering self can’t help but fit the memories to suit the current story that is unfolding right now. I hope these terminologies are clearer in your psyche now.

Our present colours the way we perceive the past. 

And what we remember about something in the past is anyway not necessarily how we experienced it at that moment.

Both of these statements are true and are worth pondering over. I’ll repeat them once more.

Our present colours the way we perceive the past. 

And what we remember about something in the past is not necessarily how we experienced it at that moment.

It is only when we become aware of such illusions of our minds that we can hope to unlearn them. Unlearn them not in the sense of ensuring that we don’t think in this manner. We cannot control the thoughts that pop up in our heads. But we can choose which thoughts we act on. And once you do that, you have, in one manner of speaking, unlearnt the attachment to your thoughts. That is when real understanding begins to dawn on you.

You should not always trust the first thought that pops up in your head about anything. And by the same token, you should not always doubt your intuition either. It is a moment by moment choice, and being able to discern what to do when is the key to a mature response to any situation.

To be able to make that choice in the best possible manner, you must be self aware. You must understand that your mind works under a whole bunch of biases and delusions that mustn’t really be trusted. 

If you’re aware of the fallacies your mind is labouring under, you can start to see things as they are, not as you think they are. And anyone who thinks that that isn’t something worth doing, really doesn’t have a clear mind and is not being the best they can be.

And we all need to be the best we can be. Both for our own sake and also for the sake of people around us.

I hope this episode gave you something to think about. If it did, share it with your community too. You never know the impact it can have on someone else. 

And if I may ask you for a favour, please leave a rating and a review for the show on as many podcast platforms as you can. You very well know the impact that can have for the reach of this content. 

Until next time, peace out.