It’s fun to reminisce with family and friends about shared experiences. At the same time, I find it extremely enjoyable to listen to people tell stories of events past, reliving memories, sharing laughs, and catching up on what has happened over time. Without fail, there is a part in every story where there is disagreement between storytellers over what they actually experienced.

We all see life through a unique lens and have different perspectives as we watch events unfold. It may be our proximity to a happening, our frame of mind when we experienced it, the mental model through which we continually analyze the world around us, or something more subtle. But rarely do two people share the exact same experience when witnessing the same set of events. Even if they leave the scene with the same summary of events in their memory, they are likely to remember it differently over time. I am intrigued by the tendency we have to communicate an increasingly different memory of our perceived reality as time goes on.

In an attempt to quench that curiosity, I learned the difference between our experiencing self and our remembering self. Daniel Kahneman spent a great deal of time researching how the two differ and it turns out our remembering self is far more influential than our experiencing self. As Daniel says, “The experiencing self does all the living by going through a succession of moments while the remembering self is the one that gets to keep the memories. When people make decisions, the remembering self is in control.”

So, there could be many amazing experiences on a vacation and if the primary memory is of the rain on the last day, the delayed flight home, or the one sub-par meal, the entire vacation might be framed as a bust. And over time those primary memories will completely overshadow any recollection of the amazing meals enjoyed, the liberating adventures experienced, or the inspiring people we may have met. In some ways, it takes me back to George Orwell’s 1984 and the quote, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” Our remembering self certainly is in control of our past and, therefore, our future.

I recently went to my high school reunion and as I conversed with my classmates some great memories flashed through my head. Memories I had long forgotten and some I wish I didn’t remember. But the reality is that those memories that surfaced may not accurately reflect that which I actually experienced. They are the result of how my brain shaped those memories over time. It is also important to acknowledge that human beings remember what we want to. Many of us suffer from “The older I get, the better I was” syndrome more than we know.

We may see things differently and we certainly will remember them even more differently. That is expected. The amount of influence we allow our experiences (present) to have on our memories (future) is up to us. There are times when great influence is desired and there are times when we’d rather our remembering self use a great deal of creative license.

  • How differently might you and your family members communicate the same childhood memory?
  • How influential is your experiencing self?
  • Quick: Was yesterday a good day or do you even remember it?