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No future without the past

Is it possible for anyone to shed the ‘baggage’ of the past and turn a clean, new leaf in life? A few years back, some eminent psychologists studied this and came to the conclusion that our ability to envision the future is strongly influenced by our memory of the past. In other words, we tend to use memories of past experiences to predict what our life will be like in the future.

Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for his contribution to the field of behavioural economics, uses an example to illustrate how our memories shape our thoughts and feelings. A person had dinner at a restaurant. Everything went well. The food was delicious, the wine wonderful. Memorable dinner. You would recommend the restaurant to anyone. Just then something goes wrong. The waiter spills some coffee on your elegant suit. Odds are that the coffee spill will taint your memory of the food and the wine.

What lingers on is memory rather than experience, argues the psychologist. Further he says that the decisions we make are based on our memories, not our experiences. The restaurant triggers your unpleasant memory whenever someone asks your opinion about it. Life is a continuous series of moments of experience, says Kahneman. Once these moments are passed, most of them are lost forever.  Kahneman calculated that the psychological presence of an experience lasts about three seconds.

But memories linger on. You cannot wish them away. They are not baggage you carry on your back which you can put down when you feel like doing so. They are more like the stains on your suit that refuse to fade, all the stain removers notwithstanding.  

The situation becomes much worse if these bad memories have been reinforced by further similar experiences. Take the case of a woman ditched by her boyfriend. She overcomes the trauma and learns to place her trust in another man. Imagine her being ditched by him too. The likelihood of her ever retaining any trust in her heart for another man is almost nil.

The bad past is not an excess baggage carried by us.  They become integral parts of our very being. Memories are not mere experiences. They are the marks left in your soul by the experiences. How deep are the marks, how durable they are, these decide whether you can escape from them while planning your future.

PS. This post is my response to a discussion that took place in a blog by Pranju Chakrapani.


  1. The likelihood of her getting ditched by her boyfriend for the third time consecutively is also nil, by the Bayesian probability theory. If deep are those memories, deeper still is perhaps the yearning for some better memories. Sometimes 'pretending' to forget those memories might become dumping of those 'baggages' :) But yes, to consider past memories as baggages is literally, not metaphorically, speaking incorrect

    1. The likelihood of her getting ditches for the third time is nil because she won't ever fall in love anymore and not because of the Bayesian probability theory. :)

      My personal experience: I left a job about a decade and a half back because of the treatment I received from a religious sect. I found a job in a secular institution in Delhi. Then came, the bliss of a decade and a half later, another religious sect led by a godman and his women as well as thugs. These wolves in sheep's clothing destroyed the educational institution totally, assaulted people, got some imprisoned by fabricating false charges including molestation of those witchy women... Now you know why I puke every time I see a religious person. I don't need a third experience though I'm waiting for it!

      Memories can be baggage if they are not pleasant ones. Metaphorically, of course.

  2. Once bitten twice shy. Our decisions are based on our past experiences and impressions.

  3. How do you differentiate memory from experience? Isn't all that we experience becoming a part of our memory? Isn't it "integral" as you put in the end?

    1. Experience is what actually happened and memory is your mind's interpretation of it. The example of the restaurant. What happened was a pleasant experience. Good dinner. But a small mistake by the waiter is what remains in the mind. The stain on the suit remains while the delicious food and wine and beautiful environment all disappear. What becomes 'integral' is the memory and not the actual experience.

    2. Thats what exactly came to my mind. Memory is made up of one or many experiences. Can you actually isolate the two. However, one memory can have more than one experiences (like in restaurant situation). What we choose to store as memory lies with us. Isnt it. However, if the ratio of bad experiences is higher in a memory, the mind will certainly ignore anything good happened during the same time frame and create a "bad memory" for that incident/place/time.

    3. The last part of your comment is the answer. Deepali. It's all in your mind and the personality that is already stained by a lot of past experiences. I'm sure you've heard the jovial description: An optimist is a person who looks for a garden when he smells flowers and a pessimist is a person who looks for a coffin :) It's all in the mind. It's all in the memory. It's all conncected with experiences.

  4. It also depends upon how we perceive things. Our own understanding. Sometimes bad incidents which happened in past, shape up our present personality or thought process.

    1. Perception, perspective, memory, mind, consciousness... the terms are endless. But I thought I was saying something very simple :(


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