We Can Remember It For You

“An illusion, however convincing, is still an illusion.” – Philip K. Dick (paraphrased)

Watching an old movie of yourself or looking at an old picture, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine the person you see in the frame. You recognise the image, and perhaps can recall something about the occasion, but (for me if I am honest) it can often be difficult to fully identify with the person you see. Identity changes over time, and although you look at a picture and know that it is you, you also know that that version of ‘you’ is different to the version of you that is looking at the image and contemplating who is there.

In We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, Philip K. Dick explores the relationship between our memories and reality, and watching the remake of Total Recall reminded me of just how confused the relationship between experience and memory can be. Who I am is a function of where I am, who I am with, and all that I have experienced up to that point. This means, of course, that I am changing all the time, something the film captures, although it fails to explore the topic in quite the same depth as the original story.

The remembering self and the experiencing self

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes a bizarre experiment where patients are undergoing painful treatments, and for both of two sets of patients the initial treatment is equally painful, but for the second group the treatment goes on much longer but diminishes in intensity towards the end of the treatment. Therefore, Group A have clearly experienced less pain than Group B, who have been subjected to an additional period of pain (albeit where the intensity of the treatment is declining). Surprisingly, Group B self-report less pain experience than Group A, because although their experience was longer, their memory of the experience focuses on the peak intensity and the end point of the treatment and not on the duration. Therefore for Group B, although the peak intensity was the same, the end point was much less painful, and therefore their memory of the experience is less painful than that of Group A who had a short but intense experience. This is a similar result to one of the experiences described by Dan Ariely when he was in hospital being treated for skin burns (read Predictably Irrational).

The experiencing self is only concerned with the question, “Does it hurt now?”, whereas the remembering self wants to know, “”How was it overall?”. The same effects are observed in measures of “Happiness” where recent memories tend to cloud a lifetime of experiences, and where habituation to a certain situation and relativism become more important than the experience of life itself.

Who am I?

In the film (and the book), Douglas Quaid’s identity is ultimately determined by the choices he makes. For example, when confronted by the conflict between his former lives at his old apartment, Douglas Quaid chooses to kill Harry (his friend and work colleague) and not Melina (his ex-lover) when he sees a tear in her eye. His destiny and his identity are therefore chosen based on the decisions he makes in his life. And those decisions are triggered by emotional and empathic responses, as well as the context (environmental and social cues) that he encounters in different scenarios as the film develops. His destiny, and therefore identity, is never completely pre-determined, but unfolds as the story unfolds from the choices he makes.

Although Douglas Quaid’s memories play an important role in all of these decisions, it is always the memories that are relevant to the context and emotional situation. This is true of all our lives, as decision making is dependent on memory (of previous similar experiences), but memory therefore depends on context and emotional salience.

Learning to behave

Although Douglas Quaid is initially presented as an ‘everyman’ (regular guy with a mundane job), it’s clear from his reactions in the initial scene at Rekall that he has at some time learnt to react in very different ways, revealing his previous identity as an undercover agent.

Learnt behaviours always reveal our true natures, as when the environment and context triggers certain reactions we can’t stop behaving in the way that we have always done (the Malcolm Gladwell blink moment). The reason is that our unconscious mind (Kahneman’s System 1) has learnt over many many occasions to behave in specific ways to specific triggers in the environment, something that we can’t override easily. The vast majority of behaviour is learnt, and therefore outside our conscious control.

Planting seeds

In The Storytelling Animal, Jonathan Gottschall describes experiments designed to ‘plant’ memories, which have found that if false life stories are repeated only two to three times, then they start to stick (provided that they fit with other experiences), and many experiments looking at our memories of significant events have shown that they change dramatically over time, gradually conforming to more ‘normal’ views and/or to our view of our current (latest) self identity.

Thus our memory is not always the same as our identity and our identity is not only our ‘memory’. And I am already a different man than I was when I started writing this post. The three key lessons of memory and identity are:

  1. What we experience is not the same as what we remember
  2. Memory (and therefore identity) depends on contextual cues and emotional salience
  3. Our behaviour is driven by context and learnt patterns more than a stable self-identity


Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (2011)

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall (2012)

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *