Disconnect between memories and experiences, why Mondays aren’t so blue – By Stacey Broom

I came across an article, ‘Mondays Aren’t as Blue as We Think,’ which I found quite interesting.  Essentially what the author, Arthur A. Stone, says is that our feelings about experiences can be retrospective, in that what we remember of the experience shapes how we feel about the experience.  Rather than our actual experiences shaping our memories and thus our feelings.  While it was the title of this article that caught my eye (I feel, perhaps erroneously, that Mondays are not as good as the other days of the week), it was the concluding remarks that solidified my interest in the connection between memories and experience.

Stone writes:

Memories of an uncomfortable medical test, like a colonoscopy, influence whether or not such procedures are repeated in a timely manner. In the same way, faulty memory can hamper the development of pain medications. A new drug may in fact be effective in reducing daily pain levels, yet if the evaluation of the treatment is based on retrospective measures, this effect could go undetected as memories of pain-free moments are subsumed by memories of pain.

Stone concludes the articles stating:

So although debunking blue Mondays provides a clearer view of daily life experience, the real value of this work comes from understanding the psychological processes that create our memories — and the impact this has on our decisions.

While Stone is probably correct in his analysis of our feelings about Monday, how that extends to our feelings about more important things like our decisions regarding health is problematic. It’s one thing to tell a person that what they feel about Monday isn’t actually matched by their experiences of Monday (although I have a problem with this too), it is quite another to tell a patient that things are not as bad as they are making out.

The way I see it is there are two intriguing questions:

(1) Is it the past experience that matters?

or

(2) Is it our current beliefs or feelings that are important?

If (1) and (2) are at odds with each other, then we logically can’t hold both. So it either has to be one or the other.  If we say that it is (1) how we felt in the past experience that is the key point then I’m unsure of how we would go about convincing people that what they are feeling in the present moment is not consistent with their past experience. Reading the study about Monday has made me think about my experiences of past Mondays, but it hasn’t convinced me that I’m going to be any happier crawling out of bed on Monday morning.

If we say that it is (2) our current (or present) beliefs and feelings that are of most import then are we implying that actual experiences have very little bearing on how we feel about those experiences retrospectively?  Because that sounds really weird.  There has to be something about the experiences that lead to our future beliefs and feelings about them (which is illustrated in the point about a new drug treatment and pain – the person can have both good and bad experiences but the bad outweighs the good).

So possibly if (1) entails a good and bad (or positive and negative) experience then (2) can distort the experience to such an extent that the present belief does not reflect the actual experience – but I still can’t see how knowing this helps. Maybe somebody can help me out on this one. What are we to do? Here’s a thought experiment:

Ann is going into hospital for a procedure (use your imagination). During the procedure she experiences both positive and negative feelings. She feels good for having done it, it was relatively quick, and now she can forget about it until the next time. But, the procedure was painful at times. The doctor performing the procedure remarks about how calm Ann has been throughout, and how quickly she was able to carry it out, and that it was a successful procedure. When it comes to the next time Ann is apprehensive because she remembers the pain and discomfort she felt, so she puts it off. The doctor is confused because her memory of Ann’s procedure (and her memory of Ann’s demeanour during the procedure) is positive, so how should the doctor handle it?

Should the doctor (a) explain to Ann that the feelings she’s having regarding this procedure are not consistent with her actual experience at the time of the first procedure; (b) understand that regardless of the doctor’s perception of the experience, and (in fact) regardless of Ann’s actual experience during the first procedure, it is the feelings and beliefs she has now that count; or (c) create a drug (or some other technique) that can make people relive experiences to prove to them that they are remembering incorrectly and that those incorrect memories are leading them to make poor decisions?

Hmm I think this is far more complex than I thought during my reading of Stone’s article, because I really think it goes right to the heart of what people consider to be real. Is reality in the past? Or is it in the present? Or a combination of both? Because a feeling about an experience at one point in time can be vastly different to a feeling about the same experience at a different point in time, but does that make either feeling any less real? Does basing a decision on an inconsistent belief/feeling about an experience make it any less of a legitimate justification for that decision?

Anyway, just another half-baked post get you thinking.

-Stacey Broom

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