Two years ago, while finishing up my studies at ITP I was working on a thesis project called Emote [link to video | link to paper]. The intended goal of this project was to develop a prototype for a system or platform that would support “my practices for nurturing emotional attentiveness… [a platform that could help me] bring awareness to my emotional processes, identify my emotional triggers and scripts, distinguish constructive and harmful emotions, and nurture constructive emotions.” Ultimately, I wanted to create a system that would help live a more fulfilling life. A tall order I know.
Over the last few days I have been reading the last section of Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. In this part of the book, Daniel focuses on exploring our “Two Selves”, or the two different ways that we experience the world. The perspective that he puts forward here has given me whole new perspective on my thesis project and has helped me identify the faulty assumptions which clouded my thinking. Though I have not continued working on Emote, I have not lost my passion for exploring ideas related to pursuits for meaning, awareness and consciousness, nor my interesting in exploring how technology (digital or other) can help us achieve this goal.
Kahneman posits that we experience the world in two different and conflicting ways – as the experiencing self and the remembering self. Here is a brief description about how each of these work:
The Experiencing Self
The experiencing self refers to the way in which we experience the world while the experience is taking place, in the moment itself. For example, the way we experience pain while undergoing a medical procedure, or pleasure while sharing an intimate sexual encounter. This part of ourselves experiences reality in a moment by moment basis – duration and time are central aspects of the experience. As such, from the standpoint of the experiencing self, to improve our well-being we should strive to extend the duration of pleasurable moments, while minimizing the moments of suffering.
The Remembering Self
The remembering self refers to the way in which we experience things after they have taken place, through the prism of our memories. For example, the way we experience a medical procedure or intimate sexual encounter through the stories we create about these events after they have taken place. Due to the characteristics of our memory, this mode of experience emphasizes moments of peak of intensity and end moments. For these reasons, our memories don’t properly reflect the time or duration of events. This means that from the standpoint of the remembering self, to improve our well-being we should strive to find experiences that feature positive high intensity moments and that end well, and avoid experiences that have negative high intensity moment and the end badly, with little regard to duration.
Who Guides Our Decisions
According to Daniel, the remembering self tends to influence our decisions much more strongly than the experiencing self. The characteristics of our remembering self creates a bias in favor of goods and experiences that are initially exciting, even if they eventually lose their appeal. Considerations of time and duration are neglected, causing experiences that will retain their value in the long term to be appreciated less than they deserve.
Back to Emote
Emote was largely an attempt to focus my attention on the world as experienced by my experiencing self. The tools and processes that I created centered around tuning-in to, and quantifying the duration of my emotional states. My efforts were based on the assumption that by uncovering insights regarding factors that contributed positively and negatively to my moment-by-moment experience I would be able to make a positive impact on my pursuit of fulfillment. Now I realize that this was a flawed approach because the pursuit of fulfillment is largely a concern of the remembering self – it is the pursuit that is based in personal stories and a search for meaning.
I am still interested in exploring ways to focus more attention on our moment-by-moment experiences of the world, and to loosen the grip that the stories from our remembering selves have on our assessments and decisions – though I have no ideas or designs at the moment for a project to explore this area of opportunity. I also agree with Kahneman’s point that we need to take into account both of our selves in our pursuit of wellness for ourselves and our society.
Caveats and Credits
Quick caveat, this is my understanding of Kahneman’s theory coupled with a bunch of my own murky thoughts. I am sure I am over simplifying and misconstruing several of the ideas that he make so eloquently in his book. So take this with a grain of salt and read his book.