The Describing Self

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Describe your sorrows and desires, your passing thoughts and your faith in some kind of beauty—describe it all with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and use it to express yourself, the things that surround you, the images of your dreams, and the objects of your memory.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

In his master work, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman draws a fascinating distinction between experiencing self and the remembering self. (If you’re not up for reading Kahneman’s book, which I recommend, you can still get the gist of this distinction by watching Kahneman’s TED talk on the topic.) Kahneman’s experimental work, some of which is he cites in the book, shows a startling discrepancy between the measured reality of an experience and the way a person may remember the experience.

Which is more important—the qualities of a real experience, which we may not remember, or the memory of an experience, which may be at odds with how we felt while having the experience? Kahneman seems to favor the latter. He believes that in choosing our experiences we should favor those that may leave the better memories, rather than those that may feel better (or less bad) as they happen. Our memories, after all, are our life’s stories—what remains after other aspects of our experiences fade away beyond recall. We refer to our memories—our life stories—in assessing how content we are with our lives, and we rely on them in making judgments and choices.

Kahneman’s experiments show that the memory of an experience is influenced primarily by the intensity of feelings (good or bad) at the peak and at the ending of the experience, not by factors such as the duration or richness of the experience. Kahneman believes that most people will favor experiences involving prolonged but mild suffering over experiences involving brief but intense pain. By the same rationale (although likely not as obvious to most), we should favor experiences involving short episodes of intense pleasure—even if separated by prolonged periods of boredom or dissatisfaction—over drawn out periods of mild and sustained contentment. (This, by the way, is in contradiction to some Eastern philosophies, as well as common practical advice about resisting the hedonic treadmill effect.)

Another way to think about it is this: the experiencing self has a cumulative sense of the quality of an experience (and thus cares not only about anecdotal peaks but also about the duration and richness of an experience), but the remembering self only cares about the intensity of short-lived pinnacles, and disregards all other information.

With some trepidation, I propose that Kahneman’s model of the two selves, although informative and useful in most cases, is incomplete. The model assumes that the workings of the experiencing self and the remembering self are automatic and inevitable, which is a fair assumption in most cases, but not all. I think there is a third self that may affect, or even supersede both the experiencing and the remembering selves: the describing self

The describing self is a conscious self, having the power to shape the perceptions of both the experiencing self and the remembering self. The describing self can, by conscious choice, narrow the gap between the experiencing and remembering selves, making the former more satisfying and the latter more detailed. The describing self may be dormant in most people in most situations, but it can be trained by such practices as meditation and mindfulness to a point where a person may choose consciously the meaning and quality of an experience as it happens, as well as how that experience will be remembered.

A clue to the existence and the power of the describing self can be found in the writings of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi compares attention to a form of energy that we may train ourselves to control and to exert consciously. He writes, “We create ourselves by how we invest this energy. Memories, thoughts, and feelings are all shaped by how we use it. And it is an energy under our control, to do with as we please; hence, attention is our most important tool in the task of improving the quality of experience.”

The describing self, at least in theory, has the power to harness attention and, as the saying goes, take control of the narrative—the story of an experience. Rather than relegating the arcs of our life stories to subconscious “ghost writers” in our brain (e.g., the Default Mode Network), the describing self can, if it so chooses, assert itself as the author.

Mindfulness training provides the triggers and the skills needed by the describing self to detach itself from default perceptions and to narrate the story of an experience from the perspective of an outside observer rather than from the perspective of an unwitting character. In this way, the describing self may affect the perceptions of the experiencing self.

The describing self also may decide, by use of repetition and by exercising consciously specific aspects of an experience, create and strengthen memories. This is the concept underlying such strategies as constructing a memory palace.

Having the power to influence the perceptions of both the experiencing self and the remembering self, the describing self may narrow or even reconcile the discrepancies between their default and often disparate—or even contradicting—perceptions.

Photographs can be powerful tools in service of the describing self. Beyond just recording objective appearances, in practiced hands photographs can also be means for subjective expression. Expressive photographs are those that venture beyond just recording what there was. By use of consciously chosen composition and processing decisions, expressive photographs may hint at subjective aspects of an experience—things an observant, mindful, and sensitive photographer found meaningful and worthy of commemoration, that may not be obvious to another person, and that may otherwise not “make the cut” of becoming committed to long-term memory.

Similarly, journal entries—being subjective interpretations of true experiences—may serve the describing self by articulating and recording not only factual information but also aspects of an experience considered important and meaningful by the experiencing self, and thus guide the formation and contents of memories. Even if these journals are never revisited, the acts of conceiving, narrating, and writing them likely will influence how they are recorded, and select consciously what details are recorded in memory.

Expressive photographs and journal entries commemorate not only anecdotal pinnacles of experience—the default shorthand used by the remembering self—but also rich details and progression in time, which make up the reality of the experiencing self but may otherwise be lost when the experience is over.

The reason I believe it is useful to train and to consciously assert one’s describing self, especially in the course of meaningful experiences, is that in so doing we may no longer have to choose which is more important—the experiencing self or the remembering self. By taking conscious control of the emotional content of our experiences, we can elevate the quality of our experiences as they happen (the experiencing self), as well as our judgment of those experiences in hindsight (the remembering self).


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6 thoughts on “The Describing Self

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  1. The three “selfs” are linked to the basic experience. If not it would be imaginative construction. The experience itself is the base for either what we remember or what we describe. To be able to describe we need to remember and to remember we need to have “lived” the experience. The experience is the”unit” of our decimal system.
    Thanks Guy for “exciting” my mind.

    1. Thank you, Haydee!
      Memories may feel like accurate representations of what actually happened, but that is not entirely true. We tend to remember only the peaks and endings of powerful experiences. Most of what actually happened does not get recorded in memory. Also, to live an experience can mean different things since how we experience certain events is a subjective judgment. With mindfulness we can affect the qualities of an experience as it happens. We are not just passive participants. We get to decide how we feel about the experience in real time and also how we’ll remember it.

  2. Your comments remind me of something I learned in Cognitive-Based-Therapy sessions: that the mind can “reframe” memories of the past so as to change our interpretation of them – especially painful memories. This retrospective power may not be apparent from the term “mindfulness,” which seems to imply current experience, but I suppose it’s in there somewhere.

    As always, thanks Guy.

    1. Thank you, Tom!

      Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a bit different. It doesn’t rewrite memories, it guides people to question the rationality of the emotions they associate with troubling memories so these memories become less painful. Mindfulness, on the other hand, can make you form richer and more detailed memories, and to decide for yourself the feelings you want to associate with them.

      By the way, there is a form of therapy that is close to CBT but does use mindfulness and meditation as tools for self-examination. It’s called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT).

  3. This such a wonderful article Guy!

    When I first started multi-day hikes many years ago, the experiencing-self was in command. As time went by, I did longer and harder trips, and eventually, the thinking-self took over. My experience of a specific trip was deeply affected by only the highs and lows, and I was often concerned about how I would feel about the experience after it is over and not during.

    This year I have been practicing meditation and mindfulness. I can’t tell you how much richer my experiences have become both during and after a trip. I finally feel like I have the ability to consciously structure my stories instead of relying on “ghost writers” to render my experience.

    Forgive me if I have misunderstood any of your explanations as I am still trying to wrap my head around all this. Regardless, I am grateful to you for providing me with the language to understand my mental progress.

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