Two Selves: Experiencing and Remembering

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Discussion by: Zeuglodon

If you haven't read Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, then I strongly recommend you find a copy, because it contains chapters on the oddities of human choices, an explanation of how those arise from at least two different thought modes (called System One and System Two in the book), and a mixture of detailed studies and professional experience in the field. It's worth the price of admission.

 

However, the section I found most interesting was the one that detailed the predictions and uses of two modes of thinking: an "experiencing self", which feels and senses events in real time, and a "remembering self", which offers an after-the-fact interpretation of such events based on memory. This section intrigued me because it pointed out that a mismatch between the interpretations offered by both "selves" could lead to people making objectively self-defeating choices.

 

For instance, when faced with two painful medical procedures (I think it was a colonoscopy, but my memory might be at fault) in one study, one group were given a 60 second procedure, whereas a second group were given a 90 second procedure, with the first 60 seconds being as painful as that of the other group's, but the next 30 seconds containing a decrease in pain until it became tolerable. By most objective predictions, the first procedure was less painful than the second, since the second contained the pain of the first and then some. The surprise, though, was that patients remembered the second procedure as the less painful simply because it ended on a relatively bearable note, which led to them suggesting that they would choose the longer procedure over the shorter one next time.

 

Kahneman explains this by suggesting that the remembering self is insensitive to duration, and focuses instead on the peak of the experience compared with the end. By this measure, the first group on average had it worse, because the end and the peak were roughly the same and yield an equally high average level of pain. By contrast, the average for the second group would be lowered by the fact that the last experience of pain was relatively low, giving the impression that overall, this was not that bad an experience. He goes into far more detail than I do here, and I strongly recommend reading the relevant chapters if you can hunt down the book, but this is the essence of it for the purposes of my discussion.

 

Now, my question is: in the context of evolutionary biology, why would an organism arise that could choose a worse experience over a less painful one? If the remembering self has such a skewed memory of what the experiencing self went through, then that would suggest an organism might endanger its survival or reproductive prospects by misjudging the risks it was putting itself through. Would there be a reason for an organism to ignore the duration of pain and focus only on how it ended and what its worst moment was?

45 COMMENTS

  1. I’m not sure if I have understood correctly, but the example of global warming and the threat it poses sprang to mind. In that example, we won’t choose the least painful option, switching from fossil fuels to renewables, because the short term pain is perceived as too great. We will feel short term discomfort. An explanation for this out of evolutionary biology is that we only have the ability to project a short way into the future, and make decisions based on that short term need. The next hunting ground. Am I feeling cold or hot. Planning a hunting trip. Millions of years has limited most of the planets population to this short term thinking.

    The second evolutionary biological reason is “Tragedy of the Commons”. We may see the future problem, but we personally are not prepared to take any immediate pain to fix it. Back to greed and limited altruism.

    Probably way off topic but that’s what sprang to mind.

  2. Perhaps there is an perceptual issue going on. I realize this is anecdotal… and completely my own opinion…It seems as if people like a soft cushion or transition from one state to another. We prefer it to anything that is blunt. Personally, a violent stomach flu which would be gone in 24 hours seems more disconcerting than a day of being violently ill and then slowly recovering the next half day. Oddly, I would feel more in control over the second scenario and be deeply concerned over what-the-heck happened in the first. Imagine jumping onto a trampoline from a high building – you slam down on the material and then stop. Compare this to jumping onto a trampoline from a high building – you slam down on the material and then gently bounce up and down on the fabric a few times and then slowly stop. During the bouncing, I would imagine that you have the time to adjust your positioning and feel as if you can somewhat control what is going on. If you’ve ever heard a quick hit of lightning, you realize how the experience makes you want to jump out of your skin. A quick hit of lightning and rumbling afterwards is also startling, but the after effects gives you the illusion that you can somehow prepare yourself. Not sure if I’m onto something. Just my thoughts.

  3. If the remembering self has such a skewed memory of what the experiencing self went through, then that would suggest an organism might endanger its survival or reproductive prospects by misjudging the risks it was putting itself through. Would there be a reason for an organism to ignore the duration of pain and focus only on how it ended and what its worst moment was?

    Perhaps it stems from that very area….reproductive success. It’s probably advantageous to forget, or at least diminish the recollection, in order to be repeat the experience.

    • In reply to #3 by Nitya:

      Perhaps it stems from that very area….reproductive success. It’s probably advantageous to forget, or at least diminish the recollection, in order to be repeat the experience.

      I also noticed how pain is not something that can be remembered. It must have to do with this theory of yours. I often ask women who have given birth , to describe their pain. I never had children so my only comparison is possibly bad hemorrhoids or appendicitis…

      They all say that is hurt like hell and it was 8 hours of labour and horrific pain . Those that used no drugs that is… Then soon after that they are pregnant again. I ask them, don’t you remember how much it hurt ? Why do you want to go through it again ? They all say they forgot how it felt and that the end result , the baby, makes you forget it even faster !!

      This must be the way nature keeps organisms happy to reproduce.

      It is easy to relive and remember mental pain, sorrow, fear, loneliness, sadness , happiness. But you can’t relive or remember physical pain, only that you were uncomfortable and disliked it. I often wondered why this is. The most obvious reason would be that it is not important to remember that.

      • In reply to #9 by GFZ:

        They all say that is hurt like hell and it was 8 hours of labour and horrific pain . Those that used no drugs that is… Then soon after that they are pregnant again. I ask them, don’t you remember how much it hurt ? Why do you want to go through it again ? They all say they forgot how it felt

        How do you bear unbearable pain? You bear it. I contend that the worst of really excruciating pain is fear, fear that it might get worse. You don’t know how much worse it may get. I think that can considerably add to the psychological burden of novel pain.

        It is noteworthy how universal is the claim that second labours are more manageable, usually shorter, less painful with less anxiety attached.

        • In reply to #11 by phil rimmer:

          In reply to #9 by GFZ:

          You don’t know how much worse it may get. I think that can considerably add to the psychological burden of novel pain.
          It is noteworthy how universal is the claim that second labours are more manageable, usually shorter, less painful with less anxiety attached.

          I think on the contrary or at least it should be, having experienced the pain, you know what you are getting into. At the very least you remember the huge discomfort.
          I must say that the fear of the unknown is unfounded. That is made up fear. The fear of the known is much worse. To know what you must face. Surely after facing the same thing over and over you get used to it. If you survive it.

          If you look at felines or even the new fly discovered to have a penis, their reproduction causes pain. It is the only way for the female or the male in the case of the fly, to not pull away. Pulling away causes pain and damage. Why would organisms evolve like this? Because it ensures copulation at the most basic level. It is rape it is forceful. That is how it is. So why would organisms subject themselves to this?

          I don’t think they have a choice. Biology is stronger than memory of past painful events. If it was not like this, organisms would not copulate if they did not want to. This would mean extinction for those who don’t get raped in laymen’s terms. It is ironic that this is how it happens in most organisms and that the bible and koran , also condone rape for the furthermost success in procreation.

          • In reply to #13 by GFZ:

            In reply to #11 by phil rimmer:

            The fear of the known is much worse. To know what you must face. Surely after facing the same thing over and over you get used to it.

            This doesn’t make sense to me. Is it more fearful because you get used to it?

          • In reply to #15 by phil rimmer:

            In reply to #13 by GFZ:

            In reply to #11 by phil rimmer:

            The fear of the known is much worse. To know what you must face. Surely after facing the same thing over and over you get used to it.

            This doesn’t make sense to me. Is it more fearful because you get used to it?

            No, the fearfulness of pain diminishes in a linear way. If the subject is inflicted with pain once, the second time is the most fearful because now you know how it’s going to be. As time progresses you begin to adjust and your tolerance climbs. The pain inflictor then need to increase the level of pain.

            Knowing how long it took to get used to that pain and being told there will be more and worse would certainly zero the fear level again and it would rise just the same as the second time this was done.

            It also matters the time intervals between the pain infliction. The longer the time between them the less you remember. Also the more often you are subjected the less you fear as you adjust.

            It is possible fear makes pain worse than it is. Or that the body pumps more chemicals to numb the pain after a while. it is strange how people who have had a shark bite a limb off , that they describe having no pain when it happened, yet trying to amputate a limb on a person without anesthetic would cause great pain.

          • In reply to #17 by GFZ:

            In reply to #15 by phil rimmer:

            In reply to #13 by GFZ:

            In reply to #11 by phil rimmer:

            it is strange how people who have had a shark bite a limb off , that they describe having no pain when it happened, yet trying to amputate a limb on a person without anesthetic would cause great pain.

            I think this is my point. The prospect of novel pain already in progress is worse than known pain in progress. The colonoscopy with the inactive pause at the end may create a second type of distress. Its still there. What is Nurse Ratchet going to do know? The ostensibly less painful proceedure (on a pain dose model, 60 seconds only) would be judged more painful on an “unpleasantness” event model, 60 seconds of pain endured and 30 seconds of a real prospect of something else nasty.

  4. Perhaps it’s simply that we are all programmed, by evolution, to be optimists. We remember the good and forget the bad parts of experiences. All the pessimists died out long ago, they saw the reality of it all and realised there’s really no point in going on, there being as many good experiences as there are bad! It’s a bit like my favourite explanation of why things fall to the earth (gravity), it’s that they don’t! It’s just all the objects that fall away from the earth are on the opposite side of the universe, having left yonks ago!

    It’d be interesting to see further trials, say where the most pain was second, not first.

  5. I don’t really find this very surprising. If I watch a movie that is very good, but has a very bad ending I tend to regard the whole movie as bad. On the other hand, if the beginning is kind of bad but it gets better and better I don’t really care as much. Even Shakespeare knew this when he wrote the play “All’s Well That Ends Well”.

    Yes, this line of reasoning can be very useful. Nonetheless, I think Kahneman (I might be wrong since I have only watched his TED video) does not think this through to the end. What I mean is, that we are experiencing our memories. In fact, they differ every time we remember. Hence, it’s ultimately not possible to distinguish the experiencing self from the remembering self. When we remember we experience. It’s not like memories float around in the brain as loose thoughts. No, it’s an active process to remember. This creates an interesting loop that Kahneman completely ignores. That said, I think he is right that asking people how happy they are is a very poor way to judge how happy they are. Why? Because the moment you ask someone to reflect upon how happy they are different mechanisms (call it the remembering self if you like) set in. I think the only way to determine how happy a person is, is by observations. The problem though is that we don’t know how to observe the inner life of a human being. In fact, we can probably never evaluate ourselves what we are experiencing. Many seem to regard our experience as a constant state of consciousness. I actually think this very far from the truth. In most situations we are not aware of ourselves or what we are experiencing. It’s only when someone for example asks what you are thinking about that you are forced to be conscious about yourself. But, in fact you probably have no clue what you were thinking about a few seconds ago unless you were in one of those rare moments of consciousness.

  6. After giving this topic some more thought I’m not quite sure if it’s really makes sense to talk about an experiencing self and a remembering self. Or, I guess that depends on your definition of an experience. If you talk about sensory information being received and processed then yes, the body experiences things. But, that isn’t really what we mean by an experience is it? When we talk about experiences we mean conscious experiences, don’t we. I don’t think people would regard what their automated digestive system is doing as experiences. Simply, because we are not conscious about these events. But, then we have a real problem.

    I claim that all our experiences are in fact memories. In other words processed information that has been stored in our brains. These memories might only be a fraction of a second old, but they are still memories. Hence, it would make more sense to talk about the short term remembering self and the long term remembering self. But, that on the other hand raises an interesting question. How is it that we can distinguish between short term memories (what we perceive as experiences) and long term memories? Most people take this for granted. We just know that some memories are long term. But, it is actually quite fascinating. I mean, in order for us to experience long term memories they have to somehow be transformed into short term memories. Still, long term memories are not experienced the same way as short term memories. It’s not at all like we the brain gets a file from a locker and plays the video clip that is in this file. It feels more like a projection. We know that we are not experiencing it right now, and it is not as real as a short term memory. But, how do we know the difference?

  7. The big question is what constitutes a negative experience in future behaviour forming. It may actually be the total exposure to cortisol and not in any sense the remembered experience. The mechanisms for aversion were substantially laid down before significant cortical development. The high level inferences we draw from our memories may have quite other evolved and conflicting jobs to do as well as warn us of this or that.

    Memories sweeten generally with time. They are remade at every recontemplation with added material from their latest context. (Hey, I lived. Look at me now. It’ll never happen again.) When this mechanism fails we risk suffering PTSD or develop OCD habits that are profoundly disruptive in themselves. There are risks with memories that we may be ground to a halt by them rather than simply be informed by them.

    Journies are longer when they are more eventful. Its all about the data compression that our brain employs. The compression is combined with the meta data tags it generates. Archetypes and models are made. One uneventful journey, one tag. Durations of activities are accounted for in conscious memory by inferences derived indirectly, e.g. counting tagged events and noting start and finish correspondences with time cues.

    But as stated at the outset this failure to properly integrate the totality of suffering in a conscious fashion has nothing to do with how an actual aversion might be developed. Cortisol, the stress hormone might be the reliable integrator of negative experience.

    • In reply to #7 by phil rimmer:

      Durations of activities are accounted for in conscious memory by inferences derived indirectly, e.g. counting tagged events…

      Thus a two event procedure is longer than a single event process.

      Besides, though only one event is unpleasant the other may still threaten to be so. The details of the experiment are possibly key here. Where the subjects reassured that when the pain stopped it would not return? The prospect of pain may be quite as fearful as the pain itself.

      The surprise, though, was that patients remembered the second procedure as the less painful simply because it ended on a relatively bearable note,

      It is wrong to infer a reason from the experiment as stated. Many many reasons may explain the reports.

  8. Incidentally I think the experienced self has to be defined rather more as the self that resides within the (say) 60 second window of the short term memory. All the realtime processes of sensation and immediate introspection and salience evaluation are part of “experience”. Memory of sorts and some time must be involved to actually have an experience. Salience evaluation in this period is a correlate of conscious experience and is a necessary but not sufficient marker for long term memorising.

    I think the idea of immediacy and even instantaneousness of experience is a hangover from essentialist ideas of souls and spirits.

    Nunbeliever #8 I claim that all our experiences are in fact memories.

    I agree, but short term memory will serve the purpose of experience, and this is truly volatile.

  9. The thought that pops into my consciousness is that the last 30 seconds of the 90 second version with declining pain level could be rated as the “pleasure of improvement”. Evolution uses pain to say “stop doing this and try something else”. Pleasure is saying “everything is OK but you can try something new if you like”. Improvement (ie decreasing pain/increasing pleasure) is saying “this is headed in exactly the right direction, keep doing what you are currently doing..” and is probably the most motivating signal we can experience.

    Or you could put it down to one of the numerous “thinking errors” wired into human brain…

    List of Congnitive Biases on Wikipedia

    • Hey, thanks for the responses, guys! I’ll try and respond to as many as I can, but no promises I’ll get everybody in.

      In reply to #1 by David R Allen:

      I’m not sure if I have understood correctly, but the example of global warming and the threat it poses sprang to mind. In that example, we won’t choose the least painful option, switching from fossil fuels to renewables, because the short term pain is perceived as too great. We will feel short ter…

      They’re not quite the same thing. The contrast between the experiencing and the remembering self isn’t about a failure to anticipate a future disaster or risk – say, because of ignorance or denial – but is about the loss of information that skews a memory of an actual experience of one. The mystery is why, when a system is designed to feel pain to tell it what not to do, it would then lose that information afterwards, given that such a strategy would usually lead to a hefty evolutionary cost. After all, pain is generally supposed to stop us doing things that put genetic propagation at risk.

      In reply to #2 by QuestioningKat:

      Perhaps there is an perceptual issue going on. I realize this is anecdotal… and completely my own opinion…It seems as if people like a soft cushion or transition from one state to another. We prefer it to anything that is blunt. Personally, a violent stomach flu which would be gone in 24 hours s…

      Initially, I wasn’t sure about this suggestion because the experiment I described had both sets of participants effectively have the same level of control as each other. In any case, it seemed unlikely to me that an evolved organism would do better if it thought it was in control when it really wasn’t, than if it just went about it practically and either dealt with it or left it.

      After a bit of thought, however, I think you may be on to something here. A sustained attack that gradually eases off suggests to the body that it’s adapting to the stimulus, and that it could be something it can deal with, whereas a guerilla-style pain attack would suggest the body’s still vulnerable. I won’t say I’m completely confident in the idea – we’d have to establish that the experiment described above was simply due to a context evolution hadn’t prepared for, for the same reason I suggested your idea couldn’t work – but I think it’s intriguing all the same, and testable.

      In reply to #3 by Nitya:

      If the remembering self has such a skewed memory of what the experiencing self went through, then that would suggest an organism might endanger its survival or reproductive prospects by misjudging the risks it was putting itself through. Would there be a reason for an organism to ignore the duration…

      Yes, but why would an evolved organism – one that’s supposed to propagate its genes and avoid hazards on the way – sometimes forget about how bad a hazard is? To take an example, imagine our foraging ancestors came into contact with two berry-bearing plants, one that made a poison that caused agony for an hour, and another that caused agony for an hour, but became less painful during the next half hour. If pain signals to the brain that damage is being taken to the body by the poisons, by all rights an organism that ate mostly from the second bush would incur more damage than the organism that ate mostly from the first (say, in a drought environment). Or substitute berries for two deer species that fight back while you hunt them, but one gives up instantly after a while, and another gives up only gradually for much longer, et cerera. In all cases, the sensible option is to take the path of least overall pain, because the longer pain occurs, the more damage is done and the riskier the activity becomes.

      In reply to #4 by theGreatFuzzy:

      Perhaps it’s simply that we are all programmed, by evolution, to be optimists. We remember the good and forget the bad parts of experiences. All the pessimists died out long ago, they saw the reality of it all and realised there’s really no point in going on, there being as many good experiences as…

      That doesn’t make sense. A “realistic” organism trumps both an optimist and a pessimist in the vast majority of situations, for the same reason eyes evolved to pick out details as they arrive: getting it wrong is costly. In any case, the stronger argument lies in favour of pessimism: if you assume that rustle in the bushes is a predator and keep your defences up, you are less likely to be jumped than if you assume it’s just the wind and don’t take action. That’s not just theoretical, either: most animal attacks are caused because animals get spooked or panic or otherwise think they’re in danger, and many prey species like gazelles are notoriously skittish.

      In reply to #5 by Nunbeliever:

      I don’t really find this very surprising. If I watch a movie that is very good, but has a very bad ending I tend to regard the whole movie as bad. On the other hand, if the beginning is kind of bad but it gets better and better I don’t really care as much. Even Shakespeare knew this when he wrote th…

      Funnily enough, Kahneman does write about that in the book, and calls the phenomenon the Peak/End Rule: the peak of the experience, and how it ends, largely informs one’s global impressions of the experience, such that a bad ending can – in memory, at least – outdo a lot of otherwise good material in a story.

      Yes, this line of reasoning can be very useful. Nonetheless, I think Kahneman (I might be wrong since I have only watched his TED video) does not think this through to the end. What I mean is, that we are experiencing our memories. In fact, they differ every time we remember. Hence, it’s ultimately not possible to distinguish the experiencing self from the remembering self.

      Kahneman is aware that the experiencing self and the remembering self are the same person. He stresses in the book that they’re not literally two selves, but the distinction he draws is useful to describe how the same individual treats the same event at different times. Think of it not as two literal selves with different interpretations of the same event (like two different people in the head), but as the same self at different times relative to an experience: in the middle of it, and after it. The remembering self is just the experiencing self at a later date.

      Also, while I don’t want to outright ignore the philosophical discussion on memory and experience in your later post and in others’ posts after you, it isn’t what I was getting at in the OP. My point was to ask under what conditions the brain would lose information about the pain of an event, such that it is less reluctant to relive the experience than it should be. More broadly, what advantages come with focusing on peaks and endings, but not on the duration or the overall sum intensity? To me, such information seems like it would be very valuable to an organism to have, especially since a harsh environment would sometimes force it to make choices that are all painful.

      In reply to #7 by phil rimmer:

      The big question is what constitutes a negative experience in future behaviour forming. It may actually be the total exposure to cortisol and not in any sense the remembered experience. The mechanisms for aversion were substantially laid down before significant cortical development. The high level i…

      It’s certainly true that not all information is useful to the brain, and I suppose a large part of the answer to my question must involve some trade-off between different systems. This might be behind the ability for some people to willingly undergo some form of pain – say, guilty self-punishment, casual masochism, or defiance under threat of torture – as they can look past the pain of the moment to think about the overall scheme of their lives and the lives of others. Certainly, after reading QuestioningKat’s post above, I am wondering if it’s an issue of control, which in this case might be about how in-control a body feels with itself. For instance, the bodies of the colonoscopy patients in both groups might have done anything in their power to stop it, but a gradual stop suggests at least one of them worked, while a sudden stop is more likely to be due to the actions of the pain-causer and nothing to do with the body’s response. I’m just speculating here, but I think I see how it could work.

      However, the fundamental problem remains: if a body has a nociceptor (pain-detecting) or even cortisol (stress) system, which exist primarily to tell the body what not to do, why would the body then lose vital information like how long the pain lasted? It might, for instance, simply be a case of the organism not being able to look at its experiences objectively and globally, and spot the inconsistencies. In the book, Kahneman also describes how people’s preferences can switch when four options, presented to the subjects in pairs and with a gap in-between exposures, are all presented together. He called these preference reversals, and points out that an objectively rational being would not make such inconsistent choices, and I suspect like Kahneman that they might be the result of a mind not being able to fully grasp the implications of statistical thinking as opposed to case-by-case judgements. However, that still leaves room for the possibility that there’s an evolutionary rationale for picking objectively more painful scenarios.

      In reply to #9 by GFZ:

      In reply to #3 by Nitya:

      Perhaps it stems from that very area….reproductive success. It’s probably advantageous to forget, or at least diminish the recollection, in order to be repeat the experience.

      I also noticed how pain is not something that can be remembered. It must have to do with this th…

      It’s true that, in remembering pain, you don’t actually experience it, so the emotional force is blunted. However, it’s not necessarily because the brain couldn’t pull it off. Our sense of empathy and sympathetic concern enables us to contemplate and sometimes even feel the emotions of others, even though we could never have actually been in their shoes. Moreover, we have a mindset that can respond negatively to mere thoughts; they’re called taboos, which not only describe unpleasant events but even sabotage our mere thinking about them by making the very thoughts unpleasant and quickly shushed. I think if it had been evolutionarily necessary to do so, then our lineage would have included such a mechanism to prevent us from making the choice that the second group of colonoscopy patients did. What I wonder is why it did not do that.

      In reply to #12 by Catfish:

      The thought that pops into my consciousness is that the last 30 seconds of the 90 second version with declining pain level could be rated as the “pleasure of improvement”. Evolution uses pain to say “stop doing this and try something else”. Pleasure is saying “everything is OK but you can try som…

      Perhaps it is to do with some kind of relief at the end. In the old joke, a man is banging his head against a wall for no obvious reason, and when asked why, he responds: “Because it feels so good when I stop.” Pinker examined this in Better Angels in the context of talking about sadists, and suggests that, while obviously we don’t inflict any kind on ourselves for the relief (he notes the theory leads to an absurd conclusion), it might be useful in cases where an organism could gain by pushing boundaries and risking disaster. Certainly, a strong element of sadism and masochism is a sense of control over the pain inflicted, and in less extreme form, the emotions involved might have motivated pioneers and explorers to seek out new and promising ground (metaphorical and literal).

      But then, what do we make of the patients above, none of whom really had any control over their situations? I suspect that this is simply because a modern context breaks some of the “built-in assumptions” that ordinarily prevails when faced with such choices, leading to genuinely irrational decisions. It might be that the gradual decline is usually a sign that the tide is turning, rather than (as might be the case with the sudden stop) that it just happened for reasons besides the body’s own response.

      Still can’t say I’m fully convinced, though. Pain is a pretty big deal cognitively, so I would have suspected any evolved brain would be designed to avoid it like the plague whenever possible. As in Pinker’s discussion, it can’t be the case that we can overcome any and all pain, or else we’d end up ignoring stuff that would probably kill or damage us heavily.

      • In reply to #20 by Zeuglodon:

        Hey, thanks for the responses, guys! I’ll try and respond to as many as I can, but no promises I’ll get everybody in.

        why would the body then lose vital information like how long the pain lasted?

        My point was that the information may not be lost, it may just not be accessible to conscious use.

        I’m not at all happy the experiment as described has any clear implications though. Further to my last post it may be that a more painful proceedure is remembered as being more virtuous (we automatically lie to our future selves whilst it is in our heads to do so. There is a brilliant moment in the movie Momento showing how we can better take control of our future selves. I believe we have this trick.). Because it was a medical procedure we often ascribe medical efficacy to unpleasant experiences. Ninety seconds is more thorough an examination than 60 seconds. Or it may be a cultural “brave little soldier” “rite of passage” thing. The more this necessary cultural pain lasts (very many of us will end up on our sides clutching our knees) the more we act brave to ourselves to be brave in front of others. etc.

        Its a great question though.

        One final thought. Its just possible if pain is accepted as transient and non damaging the normal rules of assessment may not be applied.

        Taking one of our cats to the vet (Kami short for Kamikaze) for an examination including temperature taking, I also took two pairs of heavy duty gardening gloves. The process got more and more panic-striken perhaps as the discomfort signalled to her with growing certainty that death or injury was imminent. Under these circumstances a better assessment might be made, a brief pain counting genuinely less than a protracted one.

        Kami lost three canine teeth trying to get through the gloves. She succeeded. I lost enough blood to make the inside of the gloves feel wet.

      • My link seems to have disappeared, and I’ve lost the original, so here’s another one
        http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09658211.2014.884138?url_ver=Z39.88-2003&rfr_id=ori:rid:crossref.org&rfr_dat=cr_pub%3dpubmed&#.U2dAnFfXZzk

        While I’m here I’ll reply to Zeuglodon…

        In reply to #20 by Zeuglodon:
        In reply to #4 by theGreatFuzzy:

        Perhaps it’s simply that we are all programmed, by evolution, to be optimists. We remember the good and forget the bad parts of experiences. All the pessimists died out long ago, they saw the reality of it all and realised there’s really no point in going on, there being as many good experiences as…

        That doesn’t make sense. A “realistic” organism trumps both an optimist and a pessimist in the vast majority of situations, for the same reason eyes evolved to pick out details as they arrive: getting it wrong is costly. In any case, the stronger argument lies in favour of pessimism: if you assume that rustle in the bushes is a predator and keep your defences up, you are less likely to be jumped than if you assume it’s just the wind and don’t take action. That’s not just theoretical, either: most animal attacks are caused because animals get spooked or panic or otherwise think they’re in danger, and many prey species like gazelles are notoriously skittish.

        Sorry If I’ve not made myself clear, but I’m not saying we ignore reality in the heat of a situation, that’d be a silly thing to do and those that did so would soon be filtered out. What we’re talking about is how we remember things afters they’ve happened, isn’t it? All I’m saying is, that in general, those that look on the bright side see life as worth while, they think it is worth living. It’s almost a tautology. No doubt the paper I link to above says it better.

      • In reply to #20 by Zeuglodon:

        Also, while I don’t want to outright ignore the philosophical discussion on memory and experience in your later post and in others’ posts after you, it isn’t what I was getting at in the OP. My point was to ask under what conditions the brain would lose information about the pain of an event, such that it is less reluctant to relive the experience than it should be. More broadly, what advantages come with focusing on peaks and endings, but not on the duration or the overall sum intensity? To me, such information seems like it would be very valuable to an organism to have, especially since a harsh environment would sometimes force it to make choices that are all painful.

        While you may not want to discuss how memory and experience interact, it may be the answer to your question. The experiencing self, or short term memory, probably evolved to detect motion. I think it does this with several pages of updatable memory, each separated by some constant fraction of a second. By paging through this memory, movement can be detected, as well as the passage of time. This is very memory intensive but affordable because the memory is reused. On the other hand, long term memory can last a lifetime, so it can’t be wasted on unimportant information. Some form of memory compression has to be used, so time duration was sacrificed in order to save the more important snapshots of experience. The importance of a particular memory can be determined by the intensity of the associated emotion, but since the time interval between individual pages is no longer constant, time duration can’t be determined (calculated). Even though many data points between key points are lost, the average between the key points is probably nearly the same. Given the way that memory works, evolution had limited options. Evolution will produce the best result on average, at the lowest cost.

        • In reply to #28 by jimblake:

          While you may not want to discuss how memory and experience interact, it may be the answer to your question. The experiencing self, or short term memory, probably evolved to detect motion. I think it does this with several pages of updatable memory, each separated by some constant fraction of a second. By paging through this memory, movement can be detected, as well as the passage of time. This is very memory intensive but affordable because the memory is reused

          I think that’s unlikely. For one thing the evolutionary pressure to detect motion is pretty basic. I’m sure it goes back well before any primate ancestors, probably a lot further back.

          But even if you assume that for some reason humans evolved some special capability to detect motion what we actually know about how the human vision system works doesn’t support your hypothesis. A lot of vision processing doesn’t even get done in the brain. There are all kinds of specialized cells that pre-process image data before it’s sent to the brain and finds things like edges, shapes, faces, etc. I think it’s very probable there are similar pre-processning neurons to detect motion so there is no reason to believe that interpreting motion as a cognitive activity plays some defining rule in human behavior more than say detecting edges or faces.

          • In reply to #29 by Red Dog:

            I think that’s unlikely. For one thing the evolutionary pressure to detect motion is pretty basic. I’m sure it goes back well before any primate ancestors, probably a lot further back.

            I don’t believe I said that motion detection arose in primates. I’m sorry if you got that impression. I’m saying that the original need for a short term memory was to detect a fairly rapid change in the environment. In order to detect a change, the prior state must be known. It doesn’t really matter how far back it emerged.

          • In reply to #31 by jimblake:

            I don’t believe I said that motion detection arose in primates. I’m sorry if you got that impression.

            No you didn’t say that but you said “The experiencing self, or short term memory, probably evolved to detect motion.” If by “the experiencing self” you mean our human sense of identity most cognitive scientists assume that is a very recent adaptation, probably closely bound up with the adaptation(s) that made human language possible. Also, another theory that I’ve heard is that reciprocal altruism and the need to keep track of who was naughty and nice to you in the past as well as the benefit of being able to deceive and make other humans think you were more altruistic than you actually were also may have played a big role in the evolution of the “self”.

            So if you want your hypothesis to be a reasonable alternative one of the first questions we should ask is how recent is the ability to detect motion in humans? That is why I mentioned primates, motion detection certainly goes back to them and probably a lot further back. In fact from what I remember of one of Dawkins’ analysis of how vision likely evolved the first vision detectors were probably mostly to observe basic things like motion. If that is the case then I think it’s highly unlikely that the need to keep track of movement in memory played a big role in the concept of a human self.

            BTW, Wikipedia has a decent article on motion perception I just took a quick look at it but I think I was correct that just as there are pre-processing bundles for edges and faces there are the same for basic motion as well, i.e., the info your brain gets already is pre-processed so that movement is to some extent already analyzed even before the data makes it to the brain. Another piece of evidence that argues against your hypothesis.

          • In reply to #32 by Red Dog:

            In reply to #31 by jimblake:

            I don’t believe I said that motion detection arose in primates. I’m sorry if you got that impression.

            No you didn’t say that but you said “The experiencing self, or short term memory, probably evolved to detect motion.” If by “the experiencing self” you mean our human…

            My point really wasn’t about motion, it was about the perception of duration in short term memory and why it may be left out of long term memory. I mentioned motion because of the time element required and how it may have affected the development of short term memory. I mentioned the ‘experiencing self’ because I think the experiencing self and the remembering self mentioned in the OP are actually short term memory and long term memory and together they constitute the ‘self’.

          • In reply to #33 by jimblake:

            I mentioned the ‘experiencing self’ because I think the experiencing self and the remembering self mentioned in the OP are actually short term memory and long term memory and together they constitute the ‘self’.

            I don’t think you can equate the two selves with the two memories, and certainly not the experiencing self with short-term memory. Imagine you are sitting near the beach and drinking a pina colada. This is not a memory but an experience. This is the kind of experience mindfulness meditators are always banging on about. Be here now!

            However, there is another self that gets pleasure from looking back over all the worthy and meaningful things it has done. This self seems to be just as important to us as the pleasure-seeking experiencing self. It is almost impossible to find activities that please both. Your sensory-obsessed experiencing self wants to go to the beach in Bali while your remembering self wants to go to the Colosseum in Rome. The latter will be worth talking about later with friends and feels somehow edifying, though it will mean trudging through the Rome traffic.

            If you knew your memory of either holiday was going to be wiped clean as soon as it was over and you would never have the chance to talk about it with friends or look back on it while sitting in your rocking chair aged 90, you would probably plump for the immediate pleasure of a non-edifying week at the beach.

            In my view a cultural holiday is a bit like salad: it’s only pleasurable as long as you think it’s doing you good. The pleasure comes from knowing that what you experience now might become a useful or pleasant memory later. Yet take away that later memory and walking round a museum full of old stones now seems less enticing than the sensory pleasure of feeling the sun on your bare chest.

            My friend disagrees. He swears that he would still go to Rome because he gets more immediate pleasure from culture. Either he is not imagining the scenario properly or I need to find a better example of immediate pleasure versus edifying, worthy experience that adds to our idea of what constitutes a good, meaningful life.

            See also Sam Harris’s interview with Kahneman.

          • In reply to #36 by keith:

            I don’t think you can equate the two selves with the two memories, and certainly not the experiencing self with short-term memory. Imagine you are sitting near the beach and drinking a pina colada. This is not a memory but an experience. This is the kind of experience mindfulness meditators are always banging on about. Be here now!

            The sensory information is not an experience. An experience is how the sensory information affects the self. If there is no self, there is no experience. The self is an entity that emerges from the interaction of current experience with memories of past experiences. This emergent self is an environment that gives context and meaning to both current experiences and memories of past experiences. Without long term memory, there would be no record of past experience to help give context and meaning to current experience. Without short term memory, there would be no current experience to remember. In short term memory, we sense a detailed dynamic representation of the environment by cycling through static pages of updatable memory much like frames of a motion picture. Long term memory contains less detailed static pages of memories of key data points in the experience.

            Imagine yourself on that beach with no short term or long term memory. There would be nothing. No experience. No self to experience anything. Anything that you did would be instinctive and there would be no ‘you’ to know you did anything.

          • In reply to #38 by jimblake:

            Hi Jim,

            I wasn’t suggesting that you could have a self, or an experience, without a memory. Yet just because A is needed for B doesn’t mean it is synonymous with it. In fact you need a lot more than just a memory to have either. However, it doesn’t really matter that I think drinking a pina colada is an experience while you think it is just the short-term memory working. All I wanted to say was that I don’t believe Daniel Kahneman is referring to memory when he talks about the experiencing self. This is why he contrasted the ‘experiencing self’ with the ‘remembering self’. This distinction is not one between short- and long-term memory but between experiencing and remembering. This is true regardless of whether a memory is needed to experience something in the first place.

            All I was doing was to state what I believe to have been Kahneman’s view, which is really what we were discussing. I personally have no idea as to what constitutes an experience, a memory or a self.

          • In reply to #39 by keith:

            This distinction is not one between short- and long-term memory but between experiencing and remembering. This is true regardless of whether a memory is needed to experience something in the first place.

            All I was doing was to state what I believe to have been Kahneman’s view, which is really what we were discussing. I personally have no idea as to what constitutes an experience, a memory or a self.

            In my view, both of these distinctions are the same thing. Short term memory is where current and very recent events are experienced, while selected snippets of those experiences are saved in long term memory.

            While you may have been discussing Kahneman’s view, I was discussing why the experiencing self perceives duration and the remembering self doesn’t. I was suggesting that since short term memory may interpret what’s happening in the environment by recording static pages separated by equal intervals of time, it is possible to perceive time duration in current experiences. However, since the parts of the experience that are saved in long term memory are separated by variable time intervals, it is not possible to accurately perceive the duration of remembered experiences.

    • In reply to #19 by QuestioningKat:

      Many many reasons may explain the reports.

      Are we all playing guessing games?

      Yes. A few reasons have been guessed at already. My point there was the presumption of an answer (ending on a positive dominates the recollection) was just that, a presumption that may narrow the field in finding explanations.

      We may ask the question, reasonably, which of the two proceedures is more distorted in recollection, or are they both distorted? Is it a duration distortion, is it a perceived non-linear amplitude distortion, is it that an integration of pain is very little different between the two durations because the pain peaked at 5 seconds allowing other effects to dominate, was the passive period moderately more embarrassing as there was no seeming medical activity just lying there ignominiously exposed for no reason, was the passive period pleasurable and guilt making, are people more sexually masochistic that we realise etc., and on in combination.

  10. In reply to #22 by phil rimmer:

    My point was that the information may not be lost, it may just not be accessible to conscious use.

    Either way, the question still needs an answer, because my point is that the decision being made is absurd in this context.

    I’m not at all happy the experiment as described has any clear implications though. Further to my last post it may be that a more painful proceedure is remembered as being more virtuous (we automatically lie to our future selves whilst it is in our heads to do so. There is a brilliant moment in the movie Momento showing how we can better take control of our future selves. I believe we have this trick.). Because it was a medical procedure we often ascribe medical efficacy to unpleasant experiences. Ninety seconds is more thorough an examination than 60 seconds. Or it may be a cultural “brave little soldier” “rite of passage” thing. The more this necessary cultural pain lasts (very many of us will end up on our sides clutching our knees) the more we act brave to ourselves to be brave in front of others. etc.

    The principle of the Peak/End Rule described here has been confirmed in other experiments and studies which don’t have the same issue of bearing the pain for the sake of a greater good, or even just to put on a brave face. A counterexample was provided by Nunbeliever earlier, whose remark that the end of a movie could wreck the whole thing was illustrative of the principle. Kahneman documents them in the book, and I just took this one to illustrate the general trend. In any case, if anecdotally, most people I imagine would associate medical efficiency with a lack of pain, especially in this age of anaesthetics and painkillers.

    I did think about it for a while, and coming back I suppose the key to understanding this phenomenon is to distinguish between what would be rational for an individual organism who values his or her own welfare, and what would be rational for a gene that uses said welfare for its own “purposes”, i.e. lasting long enough to pass on and spread copies of itself in the next generation. An individual would be more interested in how much pain it would be subjected to every second, including how it would play out across time (for instance, whether its bracing itself for pain now will help it avoid greater pains later on). A gene might just want the basics: how bad it gets, and what the outcome ultimately is. As far as the gene is concerned, an organism can suffer in the worst agony, so long as it actually lives and reproduces after that.

    Unfortunately, I still can’t think of a specific rationale for the Peak/End Rule, and this idea I undoubtedly picked up from somewhere is currently a bit vague.

    Taking one of our cats to the vet (Kami short for Kamikaze) for an examination including temperature taking, I also took two pairs of heavy duty gardening gloves. The process got more and more panic-striken perhaps as the discomfort signalled to her with growing certainty that death or injury was imminent. Under these circumstances a better assessment might be made, a brief pain counting genuinely less than a protracted one.

    Kami lost three canine teeth trying to get through the gloves. She succeeded. I lost enough blood to make the inside of the gloves feel wet.

    Ouch! You have my sympathies. That little visit to the vet sounds bloody awful.

    In reply to #23 by theGreatFuzzy:

    Sorry If I’ve not made myself clear, but I’m not saying we ignore reality in the heat of a situation, that’d be a silly thing to do and those that did so would soon be filtered out. What we’re talking about is how we remember things afters they’ve happened, isn’t it? All I’m saying is, that in general, those that look on the bright side see life as worth while, they think it is worth living. It’s almost a tautology. No doubt the paper I link to above says it better.

    I in turn should apologize for misinterpreting you, since in hindsight, it seems obvious that wasn’t what you meant.

    This research seems interesting enough, and the Fading Affect Bias could play a role in the Peak/End Rule, though I admit it seems to sit oddly with another finding of psychology known as the Loss Aversion, which makes us rate costs more highly than benefits. I’m still not sure it’s to do with optimism per se, since even if that were true, we’d still have to explain why a brain would evolve that worked best when optimistic, since the optimism would itself have to be a feature with its own evolutionary rationale.

    In the context of duration neglect (ignoring how long an experience actually lasts, as in the example in the OP), it might be that the body is more interested in how an experience ends and how bad its worst moment gets, since the former indicates what would get one out of that situation, and the latter indicates how far the boat can be pushed.

    • In reply to #24 by Zeuglodon:

      In reply to #22 by phil rimmer:

      My point was that the information may not be lost, it may just not be accessible to conscious use.

      Either way, the question still needs an answer, because my point is that the decision being made is absurd in this context.

      No, the judgments being made appear absurd. There is no test of future decision making here. They have not been given a choice between two treatments that are about to be carried out again. Another set of conscious and unconscious processes may come to exist if an actual decision and not a judgment is required. I also propose the timing of the decision will affect its nature, sooner will be less “absurd” than later.

      Non injuring, therapeutic pain is not a good basis for the test. The self lying memory of the judgment is being brave whilst you can be. I propose a visibly injuring proceedure will net a judgment more nearly as negative as a decision. It may be that the positive memory, “I survived” would be less emphasised allowing the more pain-accurate, unconscious, cortisol-integrating judgment to take precedence.

      I can see I must read the book.

      Its not that I disagree that end state judgements don’t often come to be the tag for processes. I just don’t detect it in myself at all much. I am generaly judged over analytical, though.

      • In reply to #26 by phil rimmer:

        >

        … allowing the more pain-accurate, unconscious, cortisol-integrating judgment to take precedence.

        allowing the more pain-accurate, unconscious, cortisol-integrating judgment to take precedence in decision making.

  11. I’m reminded of fear-of-death and fear-of-injury situations. Even when the fear is based on knowable real threats successful evasion of injury and death make future similar circumstances less intimidating. Why would this suppression be selected for? We might assume that in a primitive survival environment such a risk would not be taken without either a greater threat or a reasonable reward.

    I also remember a mountain bike enthusiast who kept a photo album (remember those) of his mountain biking injuries. At first it seemed like that would reinforce the trauma, but desensitization was the actual result.

    Perhaps the 90 second procedure also helps in desensitizing. Though the pain would still be very real. It may also be that the reduction in pain was perceived as acclimatization, a reconsideration that the pain was not as bad as the original/early perception indicated.

  12. A possible explanation for why only some aspects of pain are remembered:

    Pain is a signal, as part of a communications system, therefore subject to information theory concepts. There’s a great example of this in James Gleick’s book: “The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood”.

    When transmitting or recording information sometimes attributes are distilled and employed which don’t initially appear to be the most obviously important aspects. As in African drum talking, where the signal pulses resemble things like the rhythm and intonation of natural speech, combined with redundancy to enable receivers to accurately reconstruct the message over time and repetition.

    When something hurts we assume that this is specifically to do with the pain. But there isn’t a physical thing or sensation that is uniquely ‘pain’. Pain being a result of how we interpret particular signals, usually originating from specific transmitters to indicate tissue damage.

    Pain is not absolute. It results from a complex range of dynamic sensory output signals, transmission buffering and attenuation or amplification, and input sensitivity, as well as attention processing. With no approximate absolute level to reference against (otherwise essential to enable recording and comparison of past with current or anticipated pain) then maybe it makes more sense for the memory to ignore the salient aspects like magnitude and instead record the trend of pain perception: whether it’s getting better or worse over time. Whatever makes pain diminish being most worth remembering. i.e. Typically the neural linking of a noteworthy event associated with the cessation of whatever was happening when the pain occurred.

    Diminishing absolute pain sensation might be a result of any aspect in the processing chain, even if the tissue damage at the source of pain were intensifying. So it may be what you do in response to pain that is at least as significant as the cause of the pain. So what the mind remembers would likely be a combination of the painful experience, attributed causes, and mitigating actions.

    From the evolutionary selection perspective you’d expect that selection pressure would apply to favour the best responders to pain, in the sense of employing accumulated pain information to make gene perpetuating decisions, given that pain is otherwise not generally avoidable for living organisms that move around. Pain processing to inform decisions implies remembering a tremendous amount of pain experiences and being able to very rapidly cross-reference to associated response options, best encoded most efficiently via the most useful aspects of the pain experience. i.e. Encoding pain experiences as an intensifying or diminishing trend in response to attempted mitigating action and (hopefully) the happy ending.

    Encoding pain by its absolute intensity would not be an evolutionary advantage because pain is the perceptual result, and not necessarily directly related to critical information from the real world. E.g. No one would ever return to the dentist if absolute pain were the governing factor. I’ve never heard of anyone literally running away from a dentist or attacking a dentist in retaliation. Real hazards in the real world wouldn’t normally result in acute pain that gets better without that person doing anything. Real hazards would compel fight or flight in response to severe pain.

    There might also be evolutionary advantages in being able to explore the boundaries of acutely painful experiences. E.g. Exploiting food sources that might be seem dangerous or painful, but can still be valuable. Like honey bees. Or to fight off a predator that’s not accustomed to aggressive counter-attack by its prey, and which might then be deterred from attempting to eat that person.

    You can test for yourself how pain is very relative and subjective next visit to the dentist. (I did it once, but not sure if I’m brave enough to repeat the experiment. Fortunately I don’t need to now knowing how tooth decay works.) Basically you experience drilling out a cavity without anaesthetic. (Setting aside that the anaesthetic injections are also acutely painful too! Though more tolerable because it is slightly more voluntary in comparison to the actual drilling.) Dentistry is about as acute a pain as I can imagine. But unusual in that you consciously know it isn’t life threatening, so there is no sense of panic or thrashing around, yet it just doesn’t get any worse. Perhaps excepting sea sickness.

    The trick is to employ synaesthesia to attempt to divert the pain into other sensory directions. Not sure exactly how this works but there’s some kind of voluntary re-routing of inputs into other brain areas. In my case it was colours and brightness. But not a real colour, just via imagining a colour. So the more acute the pain the more attention you pay to the intensity of the associated colour. At some point the pain becomes tolerable simply because the mind is so focused on other aspects of the sensation. You apply mental effort and focused concentration to generate this alternative fake sensation that’s linked to the pain input, but which isn’t itself painful. (Being imaginary colour rather than imaginary pain.)

    I remember reading that most people have some degree of this natural synaesthesia, which can be enhanced with practise. (Practise exercises involving developing a vivid visual imagination and attempting to link the imaginary visualisation with current sensory experiences. Fairly useless as a practical skill, but kind of interesting.) I don’t really know whether my attempt at synaesthesia was directly or only indirectly successful, in that making the effort provided a distraction from the actual pain. In the ‘real’ world of pain sources you’d likely experience other distractions that would diminish the intensity of pain. Maybe like trying to stop the blood flow instead of worrying about how much the injury hurts. Sitting in a dentist’s chair with nowhere to run is an extremely unnatural and unreal environment. (Though probably no more strange than dental caries being an extremely unnatural disease.)

  13. A complementary book to the one you propose would be Andy Hunt’s Pragmatic thinking and learning (ISBN-10 1-934356-05-0).
    Decision making is probably one of the most inclusive processes in life.
    Memory: as many people have already mentioned memory is a dynamic thing; as far as short term memory is concerned there is now a lot of evidence that given a list, the first few and last few items of the list will be easier to access than the middle items of the list. But that is not that relevant to the question.
    Scenario Projection: in other words: a theoretical evaluation of a situation… picture a chess player playing out the next few moves in his mind.
    A bit of Neural Network (NN) magic: I want to train a NN to identify tubes of toothpaste. I have my picture set of a toothpaste tube and I start training my NN. The training will reach an ideal point that is not entirely intuitive. If I let the NN reach 100% recognition of that PARTICULAR tube it will not recognise any other so the ideal would be to make sure the NN recognises the item MOST of the time (around 70% of the time if memory serves).
    Take all the above and try to see what a decision would look like?
    I have a set of data pertinent to the decision at hand, a set of biases that derive from my personality, and a state of mind pondering the question and of course expectations.
    The data:
    At the best of times, I will have some valid data, some approximated data, some estimated data, and possibly some pure guesses.
    The best accuracy I can hope for is related to the worse quality of data available.
    My biases:
    Hopefully, I’m a decent human being. I have weeded out most of the biases that seem irrelevant to me but some of those pesky misconceptions persist. This will influence both my expectations and the weight I assign to the quality of my data.
    My state of mind:
    At the particular instant I am working on my decision, I am in some mood (light or otherwise) that is defined by who I am and what I have been through recently (very relative term). The mood in question will affect my decision because it will define my motivation. Some people find it very productive to put themselves in a “decision making state”.
    All the parameters are set and I start assessing my options…
    What I can evaluate, best or worse solutions, will almost always be local minima (relatively good as opposed to best) simply because of the imperfect access to data. Given the multiplicity of expectations and motivations, what I chose as best solution today might be very different from my tomorrow’s best. Even when evaluating a painful decision I can end up thinking that less pain is not necessarily the best solution.
    (humour) If it were not so, no woman would agree to give birth (/humour)

  14. Zeuglodon,

    I don’t think that everything can be explained through evolutionary adaptations. Even though Stephen Jay Gould was wrong in many ways, he described quite well the ‘spandrels’ that appear as unintended by-products of useful adaptations. In the same spirit, you could also ask why people tend to think there is more liquid in a tall thin glass than a short fat one, or why an organism evolved that was subject to the Müller-Lyer illusion.

    I tend to remember how my holidays begin and end but the two weeks in between are telescoped to what seems later like a couple of hours. Endings could be important simply because they delineate an experience and throw what comes after into stark relief, like the way we notice changes rather than sameness. A peak experience at the end is a double-whammy of sensory stimulus.

    How something ends becomes important to us because it seems to affect the whole experience, though this is just a trick of the memory since there is no way that the ending can reach back in time to change something that is over and done with. However, that is just to restate what you yourself have already said and doesn’t explain why.

    My main point is that it makes sense to look for reasons for adaptations in evolution since they are too complicated to have arisen by chance, though I’m not convinced that our obsession with endings is such an adaptation. Instead I think it more likely to be a by-product, or glitch, of some more important function of memory.

    Just one more idea. To use your colonoscopy example, I suppose that when you endured the peak pain in the middle after which the procedure became less painful, you might conclude that you had experienced the worst the doctors could dish out. However, if you finished on the peak pain you might conclude that had it gone on even longer the pain might have got even worse.

  15. If the remembering self has such a skewed memory of what the experiencing self went through, then that would suggest an organism might endanger its survival or reproductive prospects by misjudging the risks it was putting itself through.

    One more thing Zeuglodon. I think that you are overestimating the consequences of this strange aspect of our psychology. It is, after all, something that only comes to light under certain bizarre conditions. Allowing someone to insert a rubber tube into your rectum while you lie there uncomplainingly is probably not the kind of situation that our ancestors often found themselves in. Had someone asked them if they could do such a test I’m sure most cavemen would simply have told them no. I realise that there might be more situations which bring this glitch to light, but I don’t think it is serious enough to prejudice our chances of surviving and mating; at least no more than our inability to see 1,000 miles into the distance or to smell colours.

  16. Can you please die soon, Richard? I’m in no way religious. I never really felt the need to even think about it until you and your pugnacious closet-homosexual voice starting spouting about how stupid people of faith are. Do you not have any respect for anyone who doesn’t share your views? I think you’re a terrible human being and this world will be a fair better place when you’re no longer in it.

  17. Dear Zeug,

    In the evolutionary context, an animal which comes to the end of a certain experience in great pain is probably in a worse condition than one which experiences a diminution of pain during a similar experience, so the process of natural selection would favour behaviours which prefer the latter.

    Bill Dixon

  18. Humans are badly coded. If you frame a question ‘How is this badly coded drivel adaptative?’ you can have fun guessing. It doesn’t have to be. It only has to be not particularly disasterous. It is trivial to be cleverer than god or evolution. Almost anyone could arrange things better.

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