Resolving The Conflict Between Experience And Memory: Perspectives From Kahneman And The Gita

09/09/2015 2:01 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

We all live in our experiences and memories. We also try to learn from them. Sometimes they become so overwhelming that we almost get caught in them.

Nobel Laureate in Economics and one of the most prominent psychologists of the world, Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast And Slow makes a distinction between 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?'" He further says, "Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living. The only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self."

The author quotes a comment from a member of the audience after a lecture to illustrate the difficulties in distinguishing memories from experiences. This audience member described listening to a long symphony on a disc that was scratched near the end, producing a shocking sound. He reported that the bad ending "ruined the whole experience". Kahneman then elaborates that what was "ruined" was not the experience, but the memory of it:

"The experiencing self had had an experience that was almost entirely good, and the bad end could not undo it, because it had already happened. The questioner had assigned the entire episode a failing grade because it had ended very badly, but that grade effectively ignored 40 minutes of musical bliss. Does the actual experience count for nothing?... Confusing experience with the memory of it is a compelling cognitive illusion. It is the substitution that makes us believe a past experience can be ruined. 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 our future memories, not necessarily of our future experience. This is the tyranny of the remembering self." (p381)

There are two verses in the Bhagavad Gita which exactly match the situation described by Kahneman but with a different approach to the problem of experience and memory. Here the Gita traces the whole process from our dwelling over (an object of) a material experience leading to a complete sensuous involvement in it and its impact on our memory and intelligence.

In the process of describing what leads to an intelligence firmly settled in wisdom, the Gita describes what leads to an unsettled intelligence:

"Dwelling on the objects of sense (and getting deep into their experience) with absorbing interest produces attachment to them. From attachment arises desire. Desire (as it borders on infatuation) gives rise to anger. Anger leads to delusion. Delusion brings about loss of memory. Loss of memory leads to loss of intelligence or sense of discrimination. From loss of right discrimination the person perishes." II62,63

Thus if we look at Kahneman's illustration in the light of the Gita, the man who felt disgruntled over the ruining of his symphony had a deep sensuous involvement which led to attachment to the experience. Attachment gravitated into a movement of desire to persist in the experience. Desire gave rise to a movement of resentment or anger at the interruption of the experience. Anger led to delusion, or a clouding over of the recording function of the memory. Thus he was rendered incapable of objectively recollecting the entire experience. In other words he suffered a loss of the right memory which caused a loss of the right discrimination leading to loss of the right perspective.

It is important to note the distinction between the cognitive illusion Kahneman describes and the delusion the Gita refers to. Looked at with the knowledge of the Gita, what Kahneman describes as "the compelling cognitive illusion confusing experience with its memory" is actually the clouding over of the recording function of the memory as one undergoes a deep sensuous experience, thus losing objective awareness. It's like taking pictures with a fogged camera lens: the results will be blurry unless the eye is wiped clean. It's tremendously valuable to go through the experiences of life without losing the capacity to observe them objectively and impartially. Thus, according to the Gita the fault lies with the way we undergo a material experience. In fact, undergoing the experiences of life with the right observation and right recordation is seen as so significant in the Gita that the loss of the right memory and the consequential loss of the right discrimination and perspective are considered a sure recipe for self-destruction.

"[The Gita would have us enjoy the honey of material pleasure, but taking all care that our feet don't get stuck into it -- thus causing the sting of material pain and fettering our forward movement."

One might feel one would lose on the quality or intensity of experiences if one goes through them with objective awareness. Not at all! It is the other way around. One can undergo a sensuous experience with a distinctive sense of its discrete contents with objective awareness and an impartial recordation of the same. Take the example of a delicious dish. You can lose yourself into it, letting the luscious taste send you into raptures. You may feel bad if you are told there was just this much of it available when you ask for more.

Now let us undergo the same experience in a different way. This time you are expected to work out the exact contents of the recipe and their probable proportions as you undergo the delectable experience of enjoying it. Now, as you relish it you also infuse an intense awareness to the very core of every taste bud in your mouth in your attempt to distinguish the ingredients and their relative roles in the dish. In a while you have had the intensity of experience with a distinctive feel of all its contents with the right awareness and objective recordation leading to the balanced perspective and even more importantly the wisdom that an experience must find culmination in our life. And yes! You would say it's fine if there was just this much of it as even a small amount has sated you.

Thus the Gita suggests to us a better and balanced course to engage with the objects and the process of material experience. It would have us enjoy the honey of material pleasure, but taking all care that our feet don't get stuck into it -- thus causing the sting of material pain and fettering our forward movement. To uphold a clear sense of discrimination which is so necessary to maintain a clear sense of perspective and direction it advises us to keep due distance or detachment from likes and dislikes in the process of material experience.

It further elaborates:

One can range over the objects of senses, keeping free of likes and dislikes, with the senses subject to the self. Such a self-controlled use of senses leads to a tranquil state of mind free of passion and grief. Such a tranquillity leads to a stable state of mind and intelligence. II 64,65

Thus there are two ways open to us of undergoing sense-experience. One is to proceed with an experience with an inclination to likes and dislikes which keeps one confined to one's egoic self. This way is described by the Gita as the way of "the self involved in the flow of nature" (XIII,22). The other is to pass through the experience with an awareness and openness, free of all likes and dislikes. This has the power to infuse new life into the experience and helps one surpass the boundaries of one's egoic self. This way is described by the Gita as the way of "the observing witness" (XIII,23) which empowers us with a greater command over nature.

The capacity to live and lead through the experiences of life involves living in both experience and memory and yet be able to come out of them, stand aside and apart and stay a pure witness to the flow of life. The Gitaand the Upanishads hold out an alternative proposition and probably the right secret when they say that there is a Seeing Self too which helps us see not only the actual experience but also the memory of it. We have the capacity to stand witness to not only the experiences we have had but also the way we remember them. The Shwetashwatara Upanishad tells the parable of two birds sitting on a tree. One enjoys the delicious fruit of the tree and the other does not eat but just watches his fellow bird.

Concluding his findings on the two selves Kahneman says that "The remembering and the experiencing self must both be considered, because their interests do not always coincide." The Seeing Self which can play the role of an objective observer may offer us the right solution. In fact it is this capacity to stand witness to the experiences of the past and the way we remember them that holds out the potential to help us rise to the right perspective over the past and the right vision for the future. We can develop this Seeing Self which is an objective and impartial observer.

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