17 December 2012

The tyranny of the remembering self


Time now ladies and gentlemen. Time now please.

Time is a funny thing, a slippery concept that causes folks more learned than I to pause and stumble when examined in any great detail, yet it is something that has been on my mind of late, quite literally as it happens.

A conversation I had a week or so ago has stayed with me, providing a lens through which most of the last few days have been viewed. I met with a gentleman in a business setting, a scientific advisor to a financial group, in his late sixties and a telecoms engineer by trade. In his spare time, he explained, he is working on a Grand Unified Theory of Everything. Our hour-long meeting turned to two hours, and then to three, and at the end we suddenly found ourself talking about the human perception of time.

"Every moment is now," he said, or words to that effect, for by that stage my note taking had been abandoned along with any pretence of our business discussion. "The future has yet to happen and the past exists only as memory. All there is is "Now", and memories. But what are memories? Memories are just stored data, sitting in your brain. Data is data, the memory of what occurred sixty seconds ago takes up the same space as what happend thirty years ago, so the two are essentially the same. Any sense of relativity between them, that one exists further away than the other, is artificial. They all occupy the same place. Some memories are harder to retrieve, because the pathways to those memories are rarely used. What we consider to be Time, is little more than a question of data access."

From 2001 to 2003 I worked in a small town called Shelton, in the US state of Connecticut. Every morning I would travel from my home in New Haven, about 15 miles to the east, a journey mirrored by many of my colleagues who would start their journey each morning roughly fifteen miles to the north-west, in Newtown.

On Friday evening I sat in my office working late, as news of the massacre started to filter through. At first I saw simply that a school was in lockdown, and then the scale of the tragedy started to become clear. My first thoughts were for those of my former workmates with young children, a small enough group for we were a young company. But then I realised that these were memories, frozen moments of time. Nearly ten years had passed since I last saw these people and any children they had were now teenagers. In fact those in the office who at the time seemed little more than teenagers themselves in all likelihood now have children of their own. Six and seven year old children.

Saturday evening I read through the names of the victims.

It didn't take long, but longer than it ever should.

No names were familiar, but that means little. People marry, people divorce, people remarry. Names change as new lives begin. The only names that must forever remain the same are those for whom life has ended. I lost touch with people as soon as I moved away, such is the way of things. Now they only exist as memories, as data accessed only in a time of tragedy.

There is a passage in Thinking Fast and Slow that came to mind as I reflected on this, wherein Daniel Kahneman divides our self-awareness into two distinct parts, the Experiencing Self and the Remembering Self:
"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... ...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 maximise the qualities of future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self." - Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, p381
For Kahneman we are the product of our memories. Who we are, what we are, is our memory, tempered by a transitory 'fight or flight' reflex. Thus rather than being a creature of the eternal Now, we are in fact permanent travellers from the Past, trapped in the Now.

Ten years seems a long time, but ten years is really nothing more than a group of memories all ready to be accessed when needed. At any moment all that you are is the sum of all memories accessed. This weekend I was a man, standing 15 miles away from a school in Newtown, grieving for the lost children of my neighbours.

"Now isn't the time to talk about guns", the politicians say.

"Now is the only time to talk about guns", I say, for Now is all there is.

 Every moment, every memory, every death is Now, and always will be.

Now is always the Time.

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At 7:29 pm, Anonymous ruairi s. said...

great post UD, really interesting idea by kahnman


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