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Memory Reconstruction and My Life in the Peace Corps

My Life in the Peace Corps Book cover

For the last five years, I have been toying with the idea of publishing my letters from my Peace Corps service. I started by typing them up without editing. Then, I waited. When I went back to them this past month, I had to type them up again, and I did a little more research. I found that my memory of life’s events isn’t always accurate, and I am glad to have these letters to help keep things in perspective. As someone who has studied creativity, psychology, and communications with an emphasis in journalism, I know that memories aren’t something we recall. Instead, they are things that we reconstruct through the lens of who we are today.

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‘Oblivion,’ Tech and the Question of Humanity

person holding black smartphone taking a picture of brown house at daytime

Even with its predictable plot, ridiculous need to stick to tired clichés, and Tom Cruise, “Oblivion” gives viewers cause to wonder what makes us human. Its answer is “our memories.”

As clone whose memory was wiped five years ago, Cruise’s character Jack is bound to a tower where he lives safely and ventures out to patrol the land, kill Scavs if he has to, and fix drones. However, since Jack is cloned from the best of humanity, he starts to wonder about his existence and the dreams he has about a woman he doesn’t know. When he meets her and meets himself with a different number, he realizes who he is and who he isn’t. She doesn’t mind. She’s his wife and says that it’s the memories that make a person who he or she is.

If memories are what make us who we are, humanity might be in trouble. Smart phones and the Internet are eroding are ability to remember things. There’s no reason to remember facts when they can be found easily with a quick search, but when you don’t practice using your memory, you begin to lose the ability to remember. This is seen in the “photo taking impairment effect.” Because we take a photo of it, our brain doesn’t have to remember it. While this hypothesis is still being tested and debated, the question is:

If we are our memories, who are we when we don’t remember anything, and who will be as a society when we forget our past? What happens to humanity when the phones have our memories? Perhaps, the movie has told us more than we realize… “Oblivion.”

For further consideration:

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Want to Create a Better Experience? Think about Dessert

Penny Penguin enjoys baked Alaska

In “Curious?,” Todd Kashdan writes about the “peak end” experience. Memory is a reconstruction not a recall. This means that the way we remember experiences is different than the objective event itself. In this case, Kashdan explores the fact that an experience that ends well will be remembered more positively.

Kashdan offers up the unappetizing and unappealing example of research conducted on people having a colonoscopy. Apparently, this procedure can be painful and uncomfortable. Two people have the same procedure. However, when the procedure is over, the first person has the tube removed immediately; the pain is over. The second person has the tube left in for an additional five minutes; the pain is over, but the tube still feels uncomfortable. Who reports having a better experience?

Against all logic, the person who had the tube left in an additional five minutes rated the procedure higher than the person who was done immediately. In a second experiment, the scientists performed the colonoscopy for different lengths of time from four to 69 minutes and found that time had no effect on the reporting of experience. Because the, um, end of the procedure for those who had the tube left in felt less painful, the entire memory of the colonoscopy was colored as better.

Kashdan uses this research because of its scientific validity. More than one experiment reproduced the same result. However, for those who want a more tasteful representation of the “peak end” experience, you might consider the last time you had a great meal. Did it end with an amazing dessert? If so, you might wonder if the rest of the meal was as good as you think it was.

Kashdan recommends using this knowledge to improve experiences you don’t like, and he offers several examples of people doing something at the end of an activity to help make them feel better about the activity. For example, a person ends a gym session with a soak in the hot tub.

In my own life, I used to love going to the dentist when I was a kid. Our dentist had video games in the waiting room and never rushed me when I was on the hunt for a high score. More importantly, at the end of the visit, I would get to choose a toy from the toy box to take home with me. As a child who didn’t have enough toys because of our financial position, the dentist was able to end an experience that most people don’t enjoy, in such a way that I was able to remember the visits as great. For other businesses, it’s important to figure out how to end the transaction in a positive way, especially if someone has a bad experience.

Get my book and read more about “My Life in the Projects: a kid’s-eye view of HUD housing in the 1980s.”