To ponder the question of “What would I tell my younger self?” makes me think of moments of regret – the “if only....” moments. Hence, the temptation is to pass on knowledge to that younger self that might in some way change my current circumstances. “You should really study that second language. You’ll have opportunities to travel the world later and that will be a useful skill. Plus, thinking in multiple languages can allow for a broader interpretation of your inner and outer world experiences.” “Listen to your mom and practice your piano. You have no idea how much joy music will bring to your life.” Then your younger self responds, “Sure, okay, can we go get some ice cream now?”
It might be an excellent exercise to do just that. Sit down and have a discussion with your younger selves. What do you really know of this person anyway? They’re as much a stranger to you as you are to them. They’re just the
collection of stories about significant moments you have recited for years. What is going on inside their heads is as out of reach to you as is what you will have for lunch two weeks from now on Tuesday. Neuroscience and psychology, in recent decades, have advanced human understanding of memory and how imperfect it is. Our recall appears to be a reconstructive process influenced by our current state. If you are a contented adult, you could be more likely to recall the pleasant childhood memories. On the flip side, when you are sad and lonely, you might recall your teenage years when the angst caused by perceived social exile was at its peak. This is what researchers in the field currently call “memory bias.”
Daniel Schacter, PhD, in his book, "The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers" (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) describes it this way. “Bias is retrospective distortions produced by current knowledge and beliefs. Psychologist Michael Ross, PhD, and others have shown that present knowledge, beliefs and feelings can skew our memory for past events. For example, research indicates that people currently displeased with a romantic relationship tend to have a disproportionately negative take on past states of the relationship.” This especially rings true when I try to teach someone else about something I developed some mastery in. It’s difficult to remember what it was like not to know. It would be helpful to reproduce that state of ignorance because you could more easily guide someone out of it.
So, who is this younger me? In this state of ignorance about things that will come? Would I be able to talk with them in a way that enlightens them? In thinking about my past selves, my childhood self, etc., I wonder: what do they know that I have forgotten? That is more interesting to me. What can these past selves tell me that might heal a lingering scar? Is there something I am remembering incorrectly? I have so many questions for this past me. So, “Hey kid, let me check with my digital assistant on my smartphone to see where the closest Ben & Jerry’s is, so we can grab some Chunky Monkey. We’ll take an Uber.” To which he might respond, “Okay, sure, but can we go get some ice cream after that?”
*Any discussion on the merits or risks of time travel should include a warning that anything changed in the past can have unforeseen ripple effects dramatically altering the future, including your own existence in the present.
**Unless, of course, you are like a college friend of mine who got the same dinner from the same restaurant every Friday night for years.