How many selfs do we have? In “Thinking Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman points out that we each have at least two. One is the “experiencing” self that experiences the present moment. The other, the “remembering” self, provides us with access to memories of past present-moment experiences.

So obvious, so banal. Except… I’m astonished how this simple distinction can induce so much illumination.

First Kahneman points out ways our memories of past events differ from how we actually experienced them. Our memories give greater emphasis to peak experiences, and to the events’ closing moments. These tend to take precedence over our experience of the event as a whole. I realized that was true, and made a mental note to adjust my recall accordingly.

But then he came up with something that really shocked me. “A thought experiment about your next vacation will allow you to observe your attitude to your experiencing self.” Offered the most wonderful vacation I can imagine, how much would I consider it worth? But he adds a wrinkle—on returning home I must drink a potion that will dissolve and flush away all memory of my vacation experiences, I am left with nothing to recall it by. Now how much would I consider the prospect of the vacation worth? I realized with a shock that I placed much less value on the prospect of present moment experiences if they would not be available for recall. I thought I had become wise enough to value peak experiences for their own sake, in the moment alone. Obviously not. That, as I say, shocked me.

Posing this question to a friend I learned of a third self, a “planning” self that estimates the value of future experiences of present moments. My friend said she would pay nothing for such a vacation because she had learned from experience that the value of present-moments experiences cannot be predicted in advance. So, offered a vacation of a kind associated with all her fondest memories, whether or not she would have recall of it, for her made no difference to its value. The question did not challenge her opinions about the self, as it did mine.

How would other parties respond to being asked the same question. Take Bob, for example, who believes consciousness passes like a baton to whichever of many independent mental modules most insistently claims it at each instant, without any having executive privilege to speak for them all. To consider the question won’t he have to assume he does have an executive module prepared to arbitrate between how other modules over how they influence the executive’s estimate of the value of the offered vacation?  

And how about Mike, who believes the universe is purely physical. Because we all experience conscious experience he has to admit the brain can generate it. But because it isn’t physical it can’t act back on the brain, he insists--all our behavior is generated by what’s physical about us, our brains and bodies. Now the vacation-question faces him with having to make some damaging concessions: that conscious experiences can impose themselves on the brain, to get themselves recorded in memory. And, he must concede the brain can register the value consciousness places on its own experiences. The question even implies that his purely physical brain can conceive of conscious experiences of which it retains no memory. How can the brain form a concept of something that he supposes can make no impact on it, in the first place? The vacation-question seems to pry the physicalist position apart.

However, what does it mean for people like me, shocked to discover their valuation of conscious experiences is greatly affected by whether they retain recall of them? To me it signifies that I have developed a narrative self that values experiences ultimately by what they contribute to the narrative that self is composing. Essentially that narrative self is second-guessing present-moment experiences with a “what is it worth” assessment. It signals an end of innocence in being in the moment that I regret.

In reading this you must have formed an opinion of what the vacation-question “means.” Please do add a comment to share your opinion with the rest of us. Here’s Kahneman’s: “Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”