Repetition / Meaningfulness Tradeoff

My friend Daniel Saunders and I have a minor disagreement on how much
novelty a person should have in his or her life. It's only a minor
disagreement; we're reasonable people, but I will make it sound like
the both of us are more extreme in our views for purposes of this

Daniel says a person should maximize his or her novel
experiences. There are several good reasons to do this. First, novel
experiences expand you mind. They give you new ways to look at things
and make you a more interesting person.

Second, novelty likely makes your life seem longer. One of the popular
theories of how we perceive time passing is through change- if we do
the same exact thing every day, we don't remember every one of those
days individually, we compress it in our memory and just sort of
remember it once. This might be one part of why time seems to go by
more slowly as we age: Our lives grow more routine, and we've seen so
much that fewer things seem new.

Daniel lives by this philosophy. Even his favorite movies he's seen
only a couple of times.

I say that repetition is the only thing that makes life
meaningful. Imagine how empty your musical experience would be if you
never heard the same song twice. Think of how many albums you didn't
like at first but became your favorite only after repeated
listenings. Sometimes you need to experience new kinds of things
multiple times to get to appreciate them- cuisines, hairstyles, new
art forms.

Further, as you re-experience things they become deeper and more
meaningful to you. That is why rituals and traditions are so
comforting. Think of a holiday that means a lot to you-- Halloween is
coming up-- and imagine how much less meaningful it would be if you
did completely different things every year.

This disagreement has made me think about how I want my life to be.
How much novelty should I strive for in my life?

When it comes to movies, Daniel and I definitely differ. For one
thing, he seems to have a much better memory of what he's seen. Years
later he knows character names, and lots of details that are totally
lost to me after a couple of weeks or months. For me, more than
Daniel, movies are like music. They need to be seen a few times to be
really appreciated. I've seen my favorite film (Kiki's Delivery
Service) about six times, often with different people I want to show
it to. I've seen Strange Brew more than any other movie, I
think, and I look forward to seeing it many more times before I die.

When I see too much novelty I tired out and stop enjoying myself. I
see a lot of theater, but one of the things I don't like about it is
that it's so ephemeral-- once a show closes you can't see it
again. When I see a show I really love, I often go see it again and
again. If a script is what makes the show good, then you can often go
see a different production, but if the actors or the direction or set
is what makes it, you're stuck with just your memories for the rest of
your life. This is a reason, in my mind, to give movies priority over
theater. If you love a movie, you can see it again and again and
enrich your and your friend's life with it forever. I saw a wonderful
show in Edinburgh called Roadmetal Sweetbread. It featured two
actors interacting with each other and their own video projections. It
was magical, wonderful, and I'd love to see it again. As it is, month
by month I remember that it was great, but I am forgetting why.

I don't think there is a resolution to this problem that will work for
everyone. Nor do I think it's the same for every kind of
experience. For most people, it's important to hear music multiple
times to maximize what you get out of it. For everybody, as far as I
know, never talking to the same people more than once would be an
extraordinarily empty life.

But for movies, travel destinations, breakfast menu selections,
holiday activities and lots of other things, it's a gray area. There
is a trade-off between exciting new stimuli and the meaningfulness of
our experiences. We all should consider the problem and make a choice
about how much novelty to seek in the different aspects of our lives.

See also my post on repetition in art:


Cue said…
Oh indeed, the ol' Exploration vs Exploitation... indeed... The points brought up in this blog really made me think a bit about this issue in a way I have not before. As I look at my own life... I seem to explore and do new things quite a bit, but then continue to do that new thing several times until I have explored all of the newness in it (and in so doing reaching a certain level of proficiency at it) and then move to something else new. With each new thing I try to achieve a certain level of proficiency that takes me deeper than just a visit, however, once I have reached that point I add it to the set of things that I visit. For example, I started skydiving... I did it enough to be a really good beginner, I passed the first two 'levels' of the sport and then kept jumping exploring the newness of the nuances of the sport. Now I have started motorcycle racing, I am surely going to continue doing that until I kick sufficient ass and then see where I go from there. I do new things, but keep finding the newness within that thing until I have reached sufficient satisfaction with my level of mastery of the new thing. So as I think about this more deeply, I guess the issue here is not so much about repetition vs novelty. It has more to do with where someone finds newness. Because if each time you listen to the same song you get something new from it, then the experience of the song is novel each time. So all you are really repeating is how you initiate the event but the experience is still aways new, so then what is repetition?
Jim Davies said…
Good points. What Daniel would say is that often, when re-experiencing something, you are NOT getting anything new out of it, merely putting yourself back into the same mental states you were in when you initially experienced it. I have to say that I don't get much out new out of listening to "Hello Nasty" anymore, I've heard it so many times, but I am happy when I listen to it, just like usual.

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