Friday, December 23, 2011

On Traveling, Surgery Residency, and the Intensity of Experience

In his recent book "Thinking, Fast and Slow", Daniel Kahneman expands upon an interesting concept. He describes two ways that human beings perceive reality: the experience of the present and the remembrance of the past. He calls them our "experiencing selves" and "remembering selves" and shows that they often fail to come to a consensus, as illustrated by a beautiful experiment with absurd results:

Participants are subjected to two forms of torture. In one form, the participant's hand is immersed in painfully cold water for 60 seconds. In the other, the hand is immersed in the same painfully cold water also for 60 seconds, at which point the water is warmed 1 degree Celsius and the participant must now endure 30 more seconds of slightly less painfully cold water, for a total of 90 seconds.

If I was going through this torture, at the end of 60 seconds I would obviously prefer to just take my hand out of the water instead of endure another 30 seconds of still very cold water! And most people, if given that option at the time, would do the same. Remarkably, if the participants are later asked which form of torture they prefer, they actually choose the 60 + 30 instead of just the 60. They are voluntarily willing to subject themselves needlessly to an additional 30 seconds of pain!

Why does this happen? Kahneman explains that while the duration and aggregate of an experience might matter to our experiencing selves, those details are easily glossed over by our remembering selves. In fact, our remembering selves focus disproportionately on the beginning, end, lows, and highs of an experience. Another question is posed by Kahneman: would you bother to go somewhere on a vacation if you would have complete amnesia of the entire trip? I'm not sure I would. At that point, relaxation is the only thing that matters (and maybe sun exposure). I might opt for Florida instead of the Bahamas or somewhere more exotic, if I was going to go anywhere at all.

The conflict between our experiencing and remembering selves was an interesting subject for me to read, because it neatly explains a paradoxical trend I had noticed: I remember some situations as being better than I know they actually were at the time (if I am thinking of the sum of the entire experience in aggregate). For example, one of my favorite semesters as an undergraduate was the spring of my junior year, but I also know with certainty that I was insanely busy, studied harder than I ever had, and went out very infrequently. I remember my social life being significantly better than average that semester, which I know empirically is not actually true (I even went to bed early on my 21st birthday because I had a physics test the next week, to the chagrin of my roommates at the time).

In light of Kahneman's book, it makes perfect sense. I didn't go out as frequently, but when I did, it was a much more intense experience. Going out after two weeks studying is just a different feeling than going out for the fourth night in a row. In fact, I remember having significantly MORE fun in medical school than I did in undergrad. Frequency matters less than intensity of experience.

I've noticed this paradox about traveling as well. Traveling is by definition not a relaxing experience (that would be vacationing). Right before medical school I went on a 6 week trip through Europe with some friends. It was a mad rush, to fit in as much as possible, stopping at places sometimes for only 1-2 days before moving on. The trip was exhausting, I remember thinking on more than one occasion. Yet, my remembering self recalls more easily the positive experiences - which were many, and noteworthy, and easily forgets the baseline exhaustion of the grind of intense traveling. This phenomenon can be explained graphically, with the spikes representing the intensity of experiences while the baseline is the quality of life day-to-day. When traveling, there is an obvious sacrifice of short term conveniences, habits, and luxuries for the opportunity to have heightened experiences:


I chose to go into surgery, which as a career has a reputation of being brutal. The long hours and the daily grind mean that I know my experiencing (present) self is, while maybe not completely miserable, certainly wishing I had chosen a more relaxing life. There is a conflict, because when my remembering self recalls the last six months, it think it has been one of the best times of my life. My experiencing self thinks surgery residency is tough and often painful, but my remembering self thinks its great and not so bad. I remember the interesting surgical cases, complex patients, and funny stories - not the long hours.

Like is the case when traveling, I've sacrificed my experiencing self for the sake of the remembering self, in this instance the sacrifice being ample sleep, free time, etc. I am compensated by doing really neat things on occasion. Finally, recall the anecdote from my junior year in undergrad: in residency, when I do get time off, its much more high impact. The fact that I only get every other weekend off on average is more than compensated by the fact that each weekend has 2-3 times the impact that they used to.

I suppose this is something to think about, whether traveling or choosing a career path. Perhaps the difference maker for me is that I am too willing to make decisions based on the preferences of my remembering self. Still, for a person choosing whether or not go to into medical school, or whether or not to go into surgery, "long hours" is something I am glad I never put too much weight on (because hours are essentially forgotten by the remembering self). Like a person who subject themselves to 30 seconds of needless pain in Kahneman's torture experiment, I would choose surgery residency all over again, even if my experiencing self would prefer a more laid back profession. Absurd results, indeed.

1 comment:

Julie said...

I like this ! Interesting and true