Investing in memories

Photo by Tom Pumford on Unsplash

Here’s a thought experiment – imagine that you are offered to choose between two vacations. One would be the vacation of your life; everything you ever dreamed, hoped and wished for would happen, making you 1000% satisfied; but with one trick – once the vacation is done, your memory (and your phone) will be erased, leaving you with no recollection at all of what happened. The other one would be your typical all-inclusive 10 days in Egypt – nothing spectacular but you know, a vacation nonetheless; and yes – you will retain a memory of it.

Which one do you choose?

Take some time to really think about it.

Done? Good.

Most of the people’s first thought is — I don’t care, I’m going to live the moment!

But, as you put more thought over it, things start changing. You know, why waste money if you’re not going to remember it? Yes, you will “live that moment”, but what’s the point if you won’t be able to bother all your friends and family with it? Or to dream about going back there while you’re sitting stuck on a crowded highway, contemplating life, universe and everything?

There’s really a lot to this phenomenon and Daniel Kahneman wrote a whole chapter about it (called “Life as a story”, part of “Thinking, Fast and slow”). Here’s a gist of it:

We are more than eager to invest in how our MEMORY of the event will look like, rather than focusing on actually living the moment of that memory. And I think that’s OK!

Before you say “that’s not me!” …

Just … no. Really, no.

Well, okay, MAYBE, but likely no.

Tell me this — when you travel or when you’re attending some event that you’re enjoying, is your first instinct to pull out your phone and capture that moment, or are you just standing there and living it?

If it’s latter — great for you! Seriously, great for you!

But most of us that aren’t the “momenters” (the term that I just made up) tend to actually instinctively try to capture that moment. And we (or, well, I) tend to do it for two reasons:

  1. One, so that we can remember and relive that moment by looking at that picture/video some time in the future, and/or
  2. Two, so that we can share the emotion with our friends and family

Bear with me now — I explicitly said SHARE THE EMOTION, because, that’s what it really is, no? We want to relive the EMOTION, the cocktail of brain chemistry that overflows us during the moment. Because, at the end of the day, it’s not about the sight / party / view / whatever, but more about how we feel about it.

I’ll give you an example – my wife claims that she enjoys watching trains come and go. I’m saying CLAIMS because I never really saw her do this, but she claims so and who am I to question it, eh?

For me – that sounds like meh activity and I’d probably enjoy it solely because SHE enjoys it and not because I feel any special connection to it. Again – it’s all about the EMOTIONAL part of the experience, and not the actual thing itself.

Speaking of emotions and investments, let me tell you a bit more about the duration neglect.

The Duration Neglect

It’s yet another phenomenon (and yes, Daniel Kahneman also wrote about it) where people completely neglect the duration of an event in favor of retaining a memory of the peaks of it.

Too complex to understand? I’ll give you an example.

An experiment was made where participants were asked to put a hand in an ice-cold water and keep it there for 60 seconds. It was just cold enough to be quite uncomfortable but not dangerous. Following that, they were asked to rate the level of pain they experienced. In the next experiment, same people were asked to repeat the experiment, but this time, past the 60 seconds mark, water was warmed up a bit and then kept that way for additional 30 seconds (totalling in 90 seconds of discomfort). Surprisingly or not, all participants rated the LATTER experience as more pleasurable than the first one.

So, what the heck is that all about?

Turns out that our imperfect brains work under a concept of “peaks”.

Most of the time we just remember the strongest emotions that occurred during the event and completely forget the rest that preceded or followed.

You know where’s that useful? When doing presentations or any kind of performance. Make couple of “memorable” slides and people will LOVE IT, even if you bullshitted for 90% of it (I’m not saying I do it, I’m just stating a fact :P).

So, here’s a hack for you:

If you want to make something MEMORABLE, you have to have some peaks. Those elevated emotional states that make memories persistent.

Let’s now talk about building those memories.

How to build (cool) memories

It’s actually more simple than it should be:

It’s all about ensuring that there’s at least one peak of experience. That elevated emotional state that makes you REMEMBER stuff.

How do you do that? I’ll give you some examples:

If you’re going for a vacation — make sure that you do at least ONE memorable thing. And no, I’m not talking about hopping on a tour bus, slowly decomposing down like a piece of dog crap left at the corner of the street. I’m talking about PLANNING and EXECUTING. Investing time into preparation and then the implementation of the plan! Plan for a hike, or a drive or jump butt-naked into a cold water … Just do something to get that adrenaline and build some memory.

If you’re preparing a speech — make sure you have at least one thing that your audience might smile (or ideally – laugh) to. Ben Orenstein did a great speech on the topic.

If you’re going for a date — plan for something unique! Something exciting. Fun & cheerful. Don’t go for a “nice dinner” or shit like that. Do something WORTH sharing with your kids!

You get the gist so far, I guess. The point is:

Invest in emotionally dynamic situations (sprinkled with adrenaline, if needed) in order to retain and build long-lasting memories! It really pays off in the long run.

Be careful though. I’m NOT saying that you need to have these ALL the time. If you re-read what I said, you will notice that I mention – have ONE or TWO of such experiences per vacation / quarter / whatever it is. Trying to have this all the time can lead to all sorts of shitty stuff that you really don’t want to experience.

Are you lying to us?


And hereby I present you the evidence to investigate at your own convenience:

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, specifically chapter “Life as a Story”
  • Interestingly enough, he also seems to have done a TED Talk on the subject. I didn’t watch it but it looks promising.
  • Headspace summed it up nicely as well
  • Wikipedia has a nice article on Peak-end rule
  • Finally, I wrote a similar article on Active Vacations and why they are better than your regular “stay at the beach, drink beer and try to save every possible calorie in you”

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2 thoughts on “Investing in memories

  1. “If you’re going for a date — plan for something unique! Something exciting. Fun & cheerful. Don’t go for a “nice dinner” or shit like that. Do something WORTH sharing with your kids!”
    Oh dear Gods, what could possibly go wrong?
    Great article, by the way, but what if someone wants to, I don’t know, divest themselves of memories? If they’re after the mythical nepenthe so to speak?

    1. Haha, well, “divesting” (just learned the word BTW) is something I never really thought of 😀

      I guess in that case – 10 days in Egypt, all-inclusive, would be a great choice. Can’t get more painful and boring than that? 😀

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