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Capture Better Memories Without a Camera

I’m always looking to better capture the special moments of my kids growing up. While having an iPhone in my pocket at all times lets me document these experiences, I feel like I’m not capturing the essence of those moments. I started thinking that technology was part of the problem, and if technology was causing the problem, more technology won’t fix it. (1)Dave Pell wrote that using technology to solve the problems caused by technology is like using heroin to overcome a methadone habit.

Technology often has side effects that we overlook. Sigmund Freud wrote about his love/hate relationship with technology in Civilization and Its Discontents. He liked the telephone because it lets him talk to his children who have moved far away. He also appreciates that medicine has reduced infant mortality and helps us live longer. But these technologies weren’t universally positive. He wrote:

If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice… What is the use of reducing infantile mortality when it is precisely that reduction which imposes the greatest restraint on us in the begetting of children, so that, taken all round, we nevertheless rear no more children than in the days before the reign of hygiene, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for our sexual life in marriage?

Tools and technology also change the way that our minds work and how we think. Take writing for example. In Plato’s Phaedrus, he tells a story about Theuth, the inventor of writing, showing this invention to King Thamus. He says:

“Here is an accomplishment, my lord the King, which will improve both the wisdom and the memory of the Egyptians. I have discovered a sure receipt for memory and wisdom.” To this, Thamus disagreed, replying, “Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.”

Thamus says that writing, by offloading certain tasks, keeps us from exercising our memory. When I was a kid, I knew everyone’s phone number. Now that I can store them in my contacts, I remember only a handful. Similarly, taking digital pictures of everything limits our ability to create powerful, poignant memories.

Memories are formed when you have a strong emotional reaction or you notice something novel or important.(2)The podcast Radiolab has a great segment highlighting research that the perception of time slowing down before an accident is actually a matter of heightened memory. With a digital camera in your pocket all the time, your brain knows that it can capture that memory on a phone. Instead of building that memory in your brain, it offloads that task and doesn’t stamp that memory in your brain. In order to build memories, you need to force your brain to create them. Here are some ways to help your brain to notice more and remember better:

  • Use the Memory Camera. One of the best pieces of advice for couples at a wedding is to take some time throughout the night, pause and just take things in. Otherwise, the overwhelming experience just merges together and you don’t remember much. When I want to remember something important, I still take pictures but I like to take a full minute(3)I use the app One Moment Meditation to just experience it. I’ve also heard of people using a memory camera by making a rectangular camera with their fingers and “snapping a picture.”
  • Play a Game of “I Notice.” I like to walk down the street and point out things that I hadn’t noticed before. It trains my brain to look for new and interesting parts of the world.  This works great with my son Blake but I’ve also done it myself. We are not allowed to think about the things, or ask questions, just point them out. It’s a game of treating the world like a painted canvas and looking for the details. I’ve seen some wonderfully awesome things just walking around my neighborhood like the way a skyscraper frames the twilight sky or how a giant tree looks to be protecting the neighborhood.
  • Pretend it’s the Last Time. No matter how good I have it, it’s easy to take things for granted. I remember when I was lucky enough to walk through Central Park every morning after taking Ari to daycare. As graduation was approaching, I wanted to appreciate each walk more. I felt like I was really going to appreciate the last day the most. On that day I’d really take in the great beauty and wonderfulness of the jaunt. But what if it rained that last day? Or if something came up at work that day and I couldn’t take that walk? And why do I only get one last day experience anyway?! So I started each walk with the mindset that it was the last time and I learned to experience each walk so much more fully. I was able to have months of “last days.”

I learned to focus on how special this particular moment is—to savor it as much as possible. When something great happens to me, I’m tempted to just want more of it and immediately make plans to have that exact experience again. But that doesn’t make a great memory. A few weeks ago, Blake and I were together at 105th street and Broadway. We decided to try out Mama’s Too, one of the most amazing hole-in-the-wall pizza places in New York. The pizza tasted extraordinary with spices and flavors we’d never tasted before. It was so good that even at 5:00 they kept running out of slices. I had to restrain myself from thinking about the next time we would come back and who we could share this experience with. Instead, I took a step back and savored the moment and built memory with my son because we will never be able to replicate that wonderful moment. (4)In A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain said, “I knew already that the best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one. I knew how important factors other than technique or rare ingredients can be in the real business of making magic happen at a dinner table. Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life. I mean, let’s face it: When you’re eating simple barbecue under a palm tree, and you feel sand between your toes, samba music is playing softly in the background, waves are lapping at the shore a few yards off, a gentle breeze is cooling the sweat on the back of your neck at the hairline, and looking across the table, past the column of empty Red Stripes at the dreamy expression on your companion’s face, you realize that in half an hour you’re probably going to be having sex on clean white hotel sheets, that grilled chicken leg suddenly tastes a hell of a lot better.”

In my post Carpe Diem! How to Live Like an Emperor I talk about a lot of the same topics. 

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Dave Pell wrote that using technology to solve the problems caused by technology is like using heroin to overcome a methadone habit.
2. The podcast Radiolab has a great segment highlighting research that the perception of time slowing down before an accident is actually a matter of heightened memory.
3. I use the app One Moment Meditation
4. In A Cook’s Tour, Anthony Bourdain said, “I knew already that the best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one. I knew how important factors other than technique or rare ingredients can be in the real business of making magic happen at a dinner table. Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life. I mean, let’s face it: When you’re eating simple barbecue under a palm tree, and you feel sand between your toes, samba music is playing softly in the background, waves are lapping at the shore a few yards off, a gentle breeze is cooling the sweat on the back of your neck at the hairline, and looking across the table, past the column of empty Red Stripes at the dreamy expression on your companion’s face, you realize that in half an hour you’re probably going to be having sex on clean white hotel sheets, that grilled chicken leg suddenly tastes a hell of a lot better.”