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Memory Wholes

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Bamburgh castle is a coastal fortress that sits on the North East coast of England and is nothing short of stunning. Built in the 11th century, it stands as proud today as it did when King Henry II walked its grounds in 1160.

View the castle from the beach and … wow. If you allow yourself to take it all in: the view of the castle, the sound and smell of the sea, the wind on your face, and the sand under your feet, it all combines to create a powerful and memorable moment.

As a species, humans have evolved to use our senses to process moments like this. Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch are the foundation of our memories. Remove a physical sensation and memories lose detail and recall falters.

The dark shadow of mobile devices in modern living aggravates this problem exponentially.

As I stood on that beach, I took in as much as I could. In fact, if I close my eyes now, I can transport myself back, hear the sounds, smell the smells, and see the castle. It’s a multi-sensory experience. However, most others on the beach recorded their experiences on their mobile phones. Their vista was a 3-inch x 6-inch screen.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying my way is right and theirs is wrong. (Well, I am a little bit.). But I am claiming that if your aim is to make memories and savour life, then your phone’s screen is a suboptimal vehicle. Human beings have spent millions of years developing a fine-tuned ability to sense and process information to create memories. To believe a mobile device can replicate what is an amazing human process is to be naive.

If making memories is not a priority, but sharing images with others is, then the phone is fine, but you must then accept that you’re sacrificing the ability to savour the moment in exchange for a “like” on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. I understand the pull of the dopamine rush when you see people “liking” the video of your experience. It feels really good–which is why all do it.

But the long-term biological, psychological, and physiological benefits of fully savouring a moment far outweigh the ephemeral dopamine spike.

Whilst we may believe that we are creating long-lasting memories by recording every minute of our life onto a digital hard drive, the neuroscience of memory formation shows this isn’t the case.

Kaspersky Lab, a cybersecurity firm carried out research looking at the reliance on computer devices as an extension of our own brain. Almost half (44.0%) of those surveyed admit that their mobile device serves as their memory, storing everything they need to recall and want easy access to. In essence, people go through life believing that they can forget important information since it can be immediately retrieved from a digital device.

One of the report’s authors, Professor Maria Wimber from the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at Glasgow University, comments:

"There seems to be a risk that the constant recording of information on digital devices makes us less likely to commit this information to long-term memory, and might even distract us from properly encoding an event as it happens."

Hit record on your phone and you’re immediately drawn into concentrating on capturing what’s in front of you. You transform from participant to observer. You now reside in a cropped reality, restricted by a tiny screen and a hamstrung brain. Your ability to build memory has been limited. You can’t outsource memory to a digital agent. That’s not how memory formation (or retrieval) works.

My radical suggestion? Put down the phone and try to truly engage. Refocus through what matters: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling.

Cropped realities undermine savouring, which is an essential ingredient to a life well lived. You owe yourself your undivided attention.


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