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An open email to Dr. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Memorial Prize 2002

by Judy Cornish

Note: Daniel Kahneman (March 5, 1934 – March 27, 2024), Princeton Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs Emeritus, was an Israeli-American psychologist notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, as well as behavioral economics, for which he was awarded the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. [letter originally published April 4, 2016]

Dear Dr. Kahneman,

Could we talk about the importance of the experiential self for those who have dementia?

I’ve been working with people who have dementia for five years now and have come to believe that when we take care of their emotional needs (which I posit is, in essence, caring for their experiential selves) that we can make dementia less onerous for both sufferers and their caregivers. I see my clients losing System 2 but not System 1. They continue to know their own feelings, those of the people they come in contact with, beauty, and all the sensory data I expose them to. As long as I take care of the rational thought processes for them, we enjoy a beautiful and peaceful world that exists in the present moment. Could System 1 and System 2 also correlate with our experiential and remembering selves? It seems to, for my clients experiencing dementia.

I’ve written a book about my experiences and my dementia care method, and hope to see it published this year. In it, I argue that we need to find a way to live with dementia so that we can avoid impoverishing families and bankrupting Medicare and Medicaid with long-term care. And, more importantly, I want us to be kinder to those who have it.

I’ve read Thinking, Fast and Slow through twice now, but will be reading it again. Thank you for writing it! And your TED talk about the two selves was very helpful. I’ve noted that my clients end up able to retain information for about 3 seconds, so I wasn’t surprised to hear that that is the psychological present.

I’ve also contacted the Langer Mindfulness Institute because I believe that, in the context of dementia, mindless thinking, such as automatic thinking scripts and muscle memory, are very valuable—so we shouldn’t be moving people who have dementia until late in the disease.

In any case, my hope is that I can inspire people to be kinder to those who have dementia by importing truths and understanding from other fields of study so we can improve dementia care here in the U.S. I would love to learn more from you.

My highest regards,

Judy Cornish

March 27, 2024: My condolences go out to Daniel Kahneman’s friends, family and colleagues. I’m sure that he will be greatly missed. I owe him a debt of gratitude for all that I learned from him.

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