With experiences and memories of 2018, we foray into a new year with a zeal for living a better life, develop stronger relations with our family and friends and keep prospering in all our endeavors. I have been busy meeting friends and gorging on some lip-smacking festive appetizers this month. Amidst the task of having my rum-n-raisin cake and watching some random videos online, I stumbled across a 2010 TED conference talk by noted psychologist and behavioral economics guru Daniel Kahneman on the human cognitive construct. The talk on the duality of human thinking was such a revelation that I could not resist blogging on this one and present my thoughts to you.
Kahneman essentially explains on the dual self, contradicting the individualistic and free-will concept we humans have been championing lately to express our freedom in thoughts and decision making. Kahneman narrates the existence of duality in us through the ‘experiencing self’ and the ‘remembering self’ and how distinct these two perspectives are in the same person. He cites a study done on the impact of pain on patients undergoing a colonoscopy treatment and which patient rates the treatment as more painful. Patient A undergoes the treatment for 8 minutes and patient B for about 24 minutes. Both patients are asked to rate the pain experience during the treatment at one minute intervals and then rate the overall pain experience of the treatment. Naturally, one would say that patient B suffered more pain than A, so the experience of B would be more unpleasant than A. Simply because B underwent the grief for 24 minutes. However, while rating the overall score on the painful experience it pans out that patient A rated his suffering higher than the rating given by B. Let’s understand this why.
While the duration for A’s treatment was much shorter, he experienced immense pain throughout the 8 minutes. Patient B started to experience tremendous pain as well and only during the last part of the treatment was he able to identify with the pain which made him feel slightly better than the preceding duration. Logically, one would assume that A and B would aggregate the rating of their pain and arrive at a figure to rate the overall misery. However, this did not happen. They instead rated their experience based on the last leg of the treatment. They had a memory of their worst pain peak cycle and how it ended. So they averaged the treatment based on the worst pain score and the final score. For every minute if patient A rated as 8,9,9,8,6,6,7,6 – he rated the overall pain experience as 7.5 instead of a 9. Likewise when B scored the pain every minute during the treatment, he rated as 8,8,9……7,6,4,3,1 for the 24 minutes and scored the overall pain experience at a 4.5 instead of an 8 or 7. Time played no role in the memory of the experience in A and B, but was rather based on how the treatment ended. Further, if the doctor elongated the treatment for A by a few more minutes and did not juggle the instrument which is inserted, A would feel less pain and hence rate his overall experience as far less painful than what he rated earlier.
A similar duality of experience and memory is observed in pregnant mothers. For 9 months of bearing a child and then undergoing intense pain during childbirth, the mothers are still ecstatic in bringing someone to this world. Pregnant mothers at the end of labour and in the duration after that undergo a change where the hormonal system secretes cortisol and betaendorphins which reduce the pain and in fact creates a sense of elation. In addition the love, congratulatory messages from family and friends, sense of motherhood add up in the end to the overall experience and hence creates a euphoric sensation within the mother in spite of the pain. The memory only registers the peak pain duration and how it ended and derives an overall experience based on these two data points. She remembers nothing of the continued agonizing experience during the labour. This is a revolutionary study and finding in understanding the duality of our nature and more so of our happiness.
When we sit down to narrate to our friends on how the year 2018 was, we essentially are only referring to the peak moments and how the year ended. We do not explain it in terms of what we had experienced during each moment of 2018. The memory has no remembrance of it. A duration of 3 seconds is what constitutes a “moment” which is in the present that we experience. In a day, we experience 28800 moments, in a month 864000 moments and in a year 10512000 moments. Still when we narrate how 2018 was we would describe it in 15-20 minutes. If you are of the poetic types maybe an hour. What about the rest of the moments you experienced? They just get lost forever!
Likewise, when you return from a two week vacation and I happen to meet you in a bar and ask you how the vacation was. You do not add up the experience of week 1 and week 2 and give me a total rating, but would tell me about the peak point of the vacation (good or bad) and how the vacation ended and arrive at an end experience. Also, if the entire vacation was almost the same it doesn’t matter if you went for a week or two. Only if the last leg of your vacation was drastically different than the other days, you would rate the experience differently. Again you would narrate the vacation to me in 10 minutes, even if you opened your Instagram and took me through the 795 pictures you took it would still last for an hour or so.
Let’s say while narrating, we also had a great time with drinks and food at the bar, but in the end if the waiter spills a drink on you which makes you to leave, you will etch the bar visit in your memory as horrible. Irrespective of the great time and grub you had.
When you are happy and you know clap your hands…
What we experience each moment is a matter of the present and makes us happy in a way which cannot be described when we answer about how happy we are on an inclusive scale. When you offer food to a starving youth in Syria and ask him how happy he is, the individual would rate his happiness much higher at that point as compared to if you ask a girl in London waiting outside Harrods wanting to own a Louis Vuitton bag and is unable to get it. Both individuals would rank their happiness quotient based on the current moment and their peak experience and not the happiness they experience at every single moment of their lives. This would otherwise tilt scale in favor of the urban girl.
The remembering self dominates the experiencing self in myriad ways and makes our experiences a slave to our memory. Assume I love you so much for reading my blogs (which I do) and offer you a vacation plan. There are 2 destinations which you need to choose from. Which one would you go for?
Destination 1 – A tour to historic castles, libraries, gardens and monuments, no alcohol and vegan diet.
Destination 2 – Beaches, yacht parties, unlimited supply of alcohol, food of your choice.
You would definitely go for option 2. But I offer this with a clause that if you chose destination 2, you have to swallow a pill which will erase all your memory and you will have no remembrance of your vacation to destination 2. Most of us will now scout for Destination 1. The reason – the remembering self reigns its supremacy over our experiencing self. We prefer to remember a vacation than experience it.
When we narrate all that we did in 2018, it is a very different tale than what we experienced. Still we draw grand plans and new-year resolutions for 2019 based on these memories than what we would or could actually experience. With our loved ones, we rate our relations based on our last interactions than all the other moments we had with them. If the last interaction was unpleasant we rate the overall relation as an average of the peak moment and the last interaction, which will make it lower than what the reality might be. We need to be more in tune with our present experiences, live each moment to the fullest and more importantly end events and interactions on a better note. This will create pleasing memories than unpleasant ones. By having higher peaks of happy experiences and blessing even the ones with whom we end a relation on a bad note can actually leave us with positive and happy memoirs. This re-engineering of our experiences will go a long way in improving our happiness indices and also make it everlasting.
The best resolution you can make to yourself for the new-year is to live in the moment and not rely much on what the past had and what the future might bring. On that note I wish you 10512000 happy experiences for the coming year.