Make memories, not ‘memories’

Owen Peterson, Opinion Editor

It seems like people in the current world have a need to photograph everything they do, whether it’s a trip across the country or simply taking a walk, and why shouldn’t they?

Most people in first-world countries are equipped with cameras on their phones – increasingly good ones, too – and there is essentially unlimited space to store these photos, so society has been equipped with the perfect tool to capture life and cherish every memory.

But, in reality, research over the last decade has shown that this constant documentation of life is actually impairing the ability to make real memories. In fact, it would seem that the process of “making memories” is doing anything but.

The TIME article, “How social media is hurting your memory,” described this memory impairment process, as “externalizing” one’s memory.

The article, written by Andrew Gregory, explains that, before the internet was widely available, information was stored either in someone’s mind or in external storage such as books or the minds of experts. This meant that any knowledge that one did not possess took effort to retrieve, but this effort has been all but erased by the internet.

Because it is so easy to look up information, people see less need to store information internally. This so-called “Google effect” points to an overreliance on knowledge that one is never truly in possession of.

Based on this, it is argued that this effect is not only taking place with information, but memories. If it is so easy to document events with photos and post them for everyone else to see, what need is there to store the memories ourselves?

Well, the danger in storing your memories externally stems from the simple yet damning idea that the act of taking a photo ensures that one will remember the moment considerably less than if they had simply observed it.

“When somebody’s taking pictures because they have to post them on Facebook,” Julia Soares, a researcher at UC Santa Cruz, explains, “there’s research to show that they’re going to remember the event less positively [than] if they’re taking the photos really intentionally.”

This is precisely what differentiates taking pictures for social media from the job of a professional photographer. With social media, the intention is rarely to savor or value a moment, but rather to make an impression on others, which is where the value of a memory is lost.

But what about photo-taking habits in the past, like for photo books and scrapbooks? How are they any different? I’m not too sure that they are, in impact at least.

The glaring difference between these two is the volume. Whereas traditional “external memory” methods were usually reserved for special occasions (which, sure, is probably problematic in its own right), social media memories are constant, capturing even the most mundane of moments.

This is completely unsurprising, as it is well known how constant and intrusive social media is in one’s daily life, but nonetheless problematic. Knowing what is known from the aforementioned studies, the constant “making” of these memories would put one in an uncomfortable scenario: How much is one willing to risk forgetting?

Okay, admittedly a tad dramatic, as social media posting will not render one demential, but I would like to posit that this constant documentation is hampering the value that one gets from life’s moments.

While, sure, maybe one won’t be “forgetting” anything if they make a habit of looking back on all of their “memories,” but that might be precisely where all of the value of making real memories is lost.

Looking back on these photos, one may think that they think that they are recalling a moment, but what they are really recalling is a hollow version of the moment that was devalued the second a photo was taken.

By detaching oneself from a moment, the chances that one will actually remember the moment for all that it really was is very low. While one may hold on to the still, that can never compensate for what was lost due to distraction.

This, I believe, is because a memory is not an image. It’s much more.

To me, a memory is a moment, captured by all of your senses, encased in indescribable feelings, that could never be adequately represented by anything other than your own mind.

While photos merely serve as cues, memories can tell the whole story because they were created with the attention of all of your senses, can more precisely remind one of how you actually felt in a moment and provide context.

As psychologist Linda Henkel puts it, “[Pictures are] not necessarily the true, full version of what happened.”

Maybe this is just a completely naive and overly sentimental take, but I really would like to believe that there is more meaning in a memory than in a photograph.

All that being said, I do not mean to either condemn photography or social media as a whole, but to simply say that I believe appreciation should always be prioritized, especially over something as inconsequential as social media.