Understand how memories are made
I've just come back from a week in North Wales. I have never been there before and was blown away by the majesty of the landscape.
Surprisingly, I took no photos. The only pictures I have are those I captured with my mind's-eye camera.
The last memory myself and my partner made whilst in Snowdonia was taking the train up Snowdon. I would've walked if my Achilles tendinitis was not haunting me again.
My memory of the train journey up is of varying landscape - sheer drops and rising mountains, the sound of the engine, the heat in the carriage, the warmth of the sun on my neck, the seat being neither comfortable nor uncomfortable, dryness in my mouth, and being surrounded by strangers taking pictures on their phones, wondering if they found me as odd as I found them.
We commented on how, after they got back onboard and waited for the train to leave, they passed the time looking at the photos they had just taken whilst we drank in the view some more.
It's great to reminisce about good memories of my past. It was enjoyable when it was today. So learning to enjoy today has two benefits: it gives me happiness right now, and it becomes a good memory later. (George Foreman)
The journey down was different. We talked to the people opposite us almost for the entire hour it took to descend.
They no longer needed to take pictures or look at the view; they had it all safely inside their phone. But do they also have it in their minds eye like me? Can they recall the scene at will?
The question plagued me so I did some research.
How do we make memories?
Memory is the mental process that we use to take in, hold and recall information, thoughts and experiences.
To make a memory the information, thought or experience needs to be processed in three ways:
1. The sensory memory
2. The short-term memory
3. The long-term memory
Your sensory memory processes information gathered by your senses. Some is held and some is dropped.
Whilst reading this you may hear sounds or feel hot or cold. Those sensations will be held in your memory for a second after you feel them and then disappear (test this – close your eyes, you’ll still see the words on the screen in your mind and then it will fade away).
If you pay active attention to the information your brain is receiving it will move into your short-term memory.
Although we use this term to mean things that have just happened or information we have learned recently, what is captured in your short-term memory only stays for up to 40 seconds – anything you want to recall after that is stored in your long-term memory.
Basically your short-term memory is really just your working memory. It holds the information you are currently thinking about but it will quickly be lost if you don’t pay attention to it.
It's like writing on a notepad with disappearing ink.
Here information can be held for a longer time – maybe years – thanks to the new physical connections that are made in the brain when we pay specific attention or encode the information.
Encoding happens when the information received is translated into a different form that can be processed by the brain.
Memory encoding can occur in three ways:
1) visually – take a written list of random items, the ones you remember are the ones you then picture in your mind. You have processed the information into pictures.
2) auditory – you say the same list outloud. You have processed the words into sound.
3) with significance – you add meaning to the list – it's Christmas gifts for close family.
Does taking pictures impact memory making?
To make memories we need to be actively present with what is happening and encode it somehow.
When we are distracted with our cameras, we are not engaging with our direct experience so cannot expect to capture the moment for long internally. We don't give our brain the time or the opportunity to process it.
A recent study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition confirms this truth.
Soares and Storm (2018) examined the known photo-taking impairment effect – we are less likely to remember objects we photograph than objects we only observe - to see if the lack of memory is due to taking advantage of the camera's "memory".
In their experiment they asked certain participants to always delete photos after taking them, use Snapchat or store them. The results found that there was no significant difference in the state of recall suggesting that it is the action of taking photos that disrupts how people engage or encode what they are viewing.
So, although we may capture something we see on a camera, perhaps it's at the cost of making memories.
Maybe the only memory some will have of that train trip to the top of Snowdon is of taking lots of photos and maybe that's all they wanted.
Mindfulness and memory-making
Evidently we need to actively pay attention if we are going to remember something.
The same is true of mindfulness. As Jon Kabat Zinn, the Godfather of mindfulness-based stress reduction, puts it "mindfulness is paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally."
Practicing mindfulness teaches us ways to attend to the present moment.
Now is the only time we have. This is when we see a sunset, hear the birds or taste the sweetness of a piece of fruit.
To be in the moment, we have to intentionally focus on the experience.
Whether we notice or not our senses are constantly picking up data from our surroundings. This means any time we choose we can bring ourselves into the present simply by tuning in to one of them.
We can be with our experience and lay down memories.
5 mindful steps to memory making
It is easiest if you read these instructions first before you try them out so you know what you are going to do.
There is no right or wrong way for this experience to be. It is your experience, your present moment. And it will be different each time you do it.
See if you can allow the moment to be just as you find it.
Sitting or standing take 2-3 slow breaths. Noticing any sensations you experience in and around your nostrils and any smell that accompanies your in-breath.
Turning your eyes now to focus on something close by (a phone, a picture, a pen whatever it doesn’t matter). Feast on it with your eyes, as if you have never seen it before.
Closing your eyes when you're ready, if it is comfortable and safe for you to do so and tune into the soundscape around you. Sounds may be behind, in front or above you, rhythmic or not, loud or soft. Allow them to come to your ears and fade away.
Keeping your eyes closed if you wish become aware of any taste or other sensations in your mouth.
Finally dropping your attention to your feet, noticing any and all sensations where your feet touch the floor either directly or through shoes. Noticing how sensations rise and fall in your awareness
Our senses, like our breath, are with us the entire time. At any moment we can choose to do this 5 sense practice or choose just one sense as a gateway to the present.
Let me know how you get on making memories in this way.
PS If you are wondering if I walked the steps they have built to the summit of Snowdon. No, I didn't. I'm saving that for when I can walk the entire way.