Memory Hacking

FastCompany and Marriott hired Faris to join the Travel Brilliantly Creative Braintrust, back when we first started traveling. This piece talks about how to have better memories. Behavioral economics? Yep. Sci Fi? Yep. Under 10 minutes to read? Indeed. 

Traveling is a way to create memories by having experiences we don’t usually have.

How day-to-day experiences are compiled into memories is dependent in large part on when the story you tell yourself starts and stops. Life is experienced contiguously as an ongoing stream, a timeline, if you like. The psychological present is estimated to be about 3 seconds and each 3 seconds are either the beginning of a story, an ‘event’, or the end of one. If nothing important to the story happens in those 3 seconds (one, two, three)...they vanish. As Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman has pointed out, our minds convey to us an illusion of verisimilitude. We believe that our memories are accurate records of our lives, but this simply isn’t the case. They are packaged up as stories: details that don’t fit the narrative are blurred out, key moments are highlighted and amplified. The almost fractal self-similarity of a working day, week, month, year, blurs things together over time. Vacations can act like punctuation, ways to anchor a specific year in the mind. What were you doing in 2005? How about 2006 or 2007?

In his magnum opus Thinking Fast and Slow, Kahneman makes the distinction between two modes of thought he dubs the ‘experiencing self’ and the ‘remembering self’. The experiencing self is the one active during those 3 seconds, the remembering self is the aspect that chunks life up into memories, into the stories that we tell other people and ourselves. What makes the remembering self happy is not the same as what makes the experiencing self happy. Specifically, the remembering self doesn’t care about duration, it simply rates an experience and creates a story. This story is based on peak moments or changes and how the experience ends.

Endings are especially important because the remembering self uses it as a heuristic with which to judge the whole. Kahneman calls this ‘duration neglect’ and ‘the peak end rule’.

Understanding that stories are defined by beginnings, key changes, and especially endings can have a dramatic impact on the way we experience, plan, and think about travel. Say you take a great two week vacation, or the same vacation for one week. Assume the second week is just as good as the first. From the point of view of the experiencing self, two weeks at a beautiful beach resort is twice as good as one, but for the remembering self that isn’t the case. For the remembering self there will be very little difference, since no significant changes, no new elements, are added to the story.

Kahneman suggests that vacations are undertaken under the aegis of the remembering self, trying to maximise future memories, rather than future experiences, because the remembering self is the one that makes the decisions. He posits a thought experiment. Imagine if you could have the perfect vacation but could not take any photographs and at the end your memory would be erased. Would you do it?

Travel is active memory construction.

This is why you buy souvenirs, a word derived from the French, literally meaning memory. This is why tourists have always taken so many photographs. Before the mediation generation began to capture and broadcast every moment of their lives, vacations were the only time you took a camera with you everywhere, taking snapshots of everything and anything. Capturing memories, artefacts for the remembering self, which shapes the planning and even the experience as it is constantly being framed. Photographs are mediated intersections between the experiencing and remembering selves.

In the 1970s, the cliche was the dreaded invitation to the neighbour’s house to view a seemingly endless slideshow of holiday snaps. Then came the ritual of dropping off rolls of film for development, collecting them days, then hours, the one hour, later, seeing how many of the photos actually came out, which were appropriate for sharing, putting a few into frames, and then filing the rest away in albums rarely to be consumed again. Digital cameras meant that film was no longer a limiting factor so we no longer had to restrict ourselves to those special Kodak moments, we could capture pictures of everything, take multiples of every shot to get the perfect memory. Now images are captured, filtered, and immediately broadcast before drifting down the stream.

Some memories don’t work well in freeze frame though. Nick Woodman realized there was no simple way to capture footage while surfing. So he created a prototype wearable camera in a waterproof housing, which ultimately became the GoPro, a lightweight wearable waterproof HD video camera. It is now one of the world’s biggest selling cameras. A search on Youtube returns more than 10 million GoPro videos. A friend of mine recently posted a comment on Facebook suggesting he felt unusual being the only person not wearing a GoPro whilst hiking a famous trail. There is of course joy in capturing and sharing all these moments, but the "tyranny of the remembering self" needs balancing out with the understanding that mediating experiences, by definition, puts something between you and the experience. Recently bands have begun asking audiences to please put their phones away and actually just watch the performance, to return some primacy to the experience itself, to the experiencing self.

Understanding the differing needs of the experiencing self and remembering self can help us travel in ways that work for both, hacking the system.

Duration neglect suggests that taking more frequent shorter trips, or staying in a few different places on longer ones, will create more distinct memories. The peak end rule suggests that if you do stay at a few places, you should try to stay at the best places, or do the things you are most looking forward to, towards the end of the trip. Capturing memories is wonderful, but not every experience needs to be mediated and shared, as the act of capturing something removes us slightly from the experience itself.

Many years before Kahneman posited his amnesiac vacation thought experiment, science fiction author Philip K Dick mooted its mirror in his short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale [which the Total Recall movies were loosely based on.] In the story, people who can’t afford vacations can opt instead to visit REKAL Incorporated, who will implant an ‘extra-factual memory’ of an amazing trip to Mars, or wherever else your heart desires. This then is the complete surrender to the remembering self, the abnegation of experience, nothing but a story of travel. The ultimate memory hack.

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