17 November 2013

I’ve had a few major changes in my life which made me think that there is no singular self. Me today is a very different person than me 5 years ago. Me now thinks about different things in a different language than me 5 years ago. Me now have different goals in life than me 5 years ago. Me now makes much different decisions than me 5 years ago. Me now has experienced some really bitter moments and lost some close people. Once I get slapped almost by definition I get a bit less naive… hopefully.

I’ve had this thought and concept of multiple selves for a while now, but just today I thought of a corollary to it. The corollary is that there is no such thing as “remembering”. There is transfer of information from the past self to the present self to the future self. Often that transfer is achieved by storing information in the brain memory. We have only a limited amount of operating memory that we use from day to day. We also have a lot of longer term memory but is is not super reliable or organized. It is like the past self communicates by writing important messages on paper napkins and spreading them around a room, as he exits and lets the current self enter. Napkins are not very durable and are very light - can be blown away by the wind from an open window or the vacuum cleaner, or they can get wet and dissolve.

Writing down our thoughts on something a little bit more persistent like a journal, or note taking app or email can capture out thoughts the way photo camera can capture our smiles and trips. By capturing our thoughts and our smiles on a durable medium we can share them with our future self. And also with others! Maybe we can start thinking of our thoughts as not really belonging to us - just as the photons that reflect our bodies and enter the camera do not belong to us. We can capture the photons by wearing black or avoid them by staying in the dark. The same way we can keep our thoughts to ourselves and forget them eventually or share them with our future self or other people by recording them down.

Sometimes the details of what we were thinking about or working with are impossible or very hard to remember. For example somebody’s phone number. We don’t remember everybody phone number. Instead we have a phone book or a contacts app in out phone. We also have bookmarks bar for our favorite and useful links and applications to remember our passwords to various different websites. We might be doing some detailed calculation in a spreadsheet, and we definitely write the score down when we play cards. It is just too hard to bother our minds with too much unnecessary details. Because when we free our minds from remembering these details we can focus on the higher level concepts. I think that that I want to call my friend Peter, or that I need to go to my project wiki page or that I need to login to my bank account rather than remembering the phone number, the link or the automatically generated complicated password.

But we can go beyond using tools to avoid remembering details. When we start recording our thoughts we can clarify them but also just point to them and combine them the way we would combine lego blocks. We can abstract away the specific sentences and start building larger ideas. We might have few simple thoughts about a given concept but not necessarily see the connections and relationships between them until we actually write them on post it notes or notepad.exe or doodle them in the side field of a notebook. Once we have put our thoughts down into a something tangible we can then rearrange them in the way we want, and the way they fit.

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