Travel Brilliantly

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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Traveling Without Moving Fast

Marriott and Fast Company asked Faris to join the Creative Braintrust as part of their Travel Brilliantly campaign. This was a piece he wrote about how virtual technology could impact travel.

'The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land.' G. K. Chesterton

There is at least one vision of the future of travel that will never require anyone to go anywhere.

It’s the ultimate expression of a cultural idea that has preoccupied human beings since we began to artificially replicate aspects of reality. McLuhan raised it in relation to broadcast television, when we could for the first time see [vision] things that were happening far [tele] away. He called this the "global village" - a "simultaneous happening" as everything is streamed in real time everywhere. Television did not do this, of course. It was simply the herald to a greater technology which was to follow, as McLuhan predicted, and other futurists took up this version in his wake.

Television, world changing as it was, worked in one direction, with some experiences selected, edited and broadcast to all. The greater technology renders distinctions between broadcaster and consumer irrelevant, as every experience is broadcast from every device in every direction to everyone. McLuhan called this shift the "global theatre" but you could argue Shakespeare got there first. The idea achieved a kind of apotheosis with the emergence of the social web, where we began to see everyone electively uploading their edited life experiences to feed the stream. As Joshua Harris foretold, and lived through the consequences of experimenting with, We Live In Public.

Fast forward then, to one logical end point, with infinite bandwidth and storage, infinitely more sophisticated mediation technologies, and the ubiquitous presence of cameras on glasses or contact lenses or on any IP enabled object [i.e. all of them]. Thanks to the kooky exponential function of Moore’s Law, this future possibility need not be very far away. All the technologies exist and 1 to 100% is only two steps if you’re counting exponentially.

Let’s put aside the utopian/dystopian discussion of a panopticon created by the people, a Little Brother where every life experience is consumable at any moment. If you think it’s hard to decide what to give your attention to now, imagine when there are 7 billion lifestations to scroll through. Everyone’s reality becomes ‘television’. In an infinite, utterly democratic media environment, the aggregation of attention itself is the only way to gauge the relative value of any quantum of content. The world will always know what’s trending, but never necessarily why - or if it’s relevant to them and their interests.

Let’s consider instead one possible way it could impact travel.

In 1990’s Life After Television: The Coming Transformation Of Media and American Life[a prescient and telling conjunction], media futurist George Gilder sums it up succinctly:

Viewers will be able to "go comfortably sightseeing from their living room through high-resolution screens, visiting Third-World countries without having to worry about airfare or exchange could fly an airplane over the Alps or climb Mount Everest".

If you can experience something [almost] indistinguishable from really being there, safely, cheaply, intensely - would you travel at all? Is the journey really the destination or is that just something we say, while wishing we could teleport to and from the beach without any of that messy in-between stuff. Why not experience everything, anything, in higher than reality resolution, like the eponymous Better Than Life game from the Red Dwarf novel.

These virtual trips are already a fact of life for drone pilots. Everyday they fly through real landscapes and carry out real missions. Then they log off and are immediately back at home. These experiences are both real and virtual. The pilots on these missions suffer similar extreme stress consequences as pilots in the field, even more so in some cases. These are not your average tourist excursions but the discombobulation is inevitable. Heightened mediation means that when you disengage, you must recombobulate back into your own life, just as you do after being manhandled by the TSA.

As technology makes everywhere accessible so that we might see differences, other powerful forces drive everywhere to become more similar. Decades of globalization driven by the quest for economic growth homogenize as technology flattens. Global brands provide products and retail environments recognisable to all, everywhere. A Starbucks on every island, P&G products in every supermarket, and indeed supermarkets themselves everywhere. This should not be understood as in some way nefarious. Indeed, for a developing nation, the arrival of global brands can signal safety, reliability and prosperity, just as they did when the emerged everywhere else. But, by the same token, the make things similar everywhere they are. Language shifts in response as the subset of English sometimes called "Globish" spreads as the lingua franca of commerce. Advertising in China, and many other countries, often includes English to connote cosmopolitan values.

So the corners of the world we can suddenly ‘travel’ to through every pair of eyes are rapidly becoming superficially the same. But they are not really the same, which is what will always distinguish being there from seeing there.

When we log on, from our sofa, to the lifechannel of a dramatic episode currently trending in a market in Marrakesh, we have none of the mundane experiences necessary to understand it except through the similarities we incorrectly contextualize. Only the exciting moments will attract attention. Rather than being forced out of a frame of reference, by small daily reminders that they are not universal, we put everything we see into our own frame, reinforcing our assumptions, confirming our biases. All the world’s a stage and everyone went to their local drama school. This doesn’t highlight things we habitually ignore, igniting new comparisons. Finding similarities in different things is the art of creativity, making new non-obvious connections between the disparate. Reality experienced through an eyeFrame doesn’t force us out of our now dominant role as audience, one step removed.

That’s why, if Chesterton was right, travel experiences that are even better than the real thing will never be as good as the real thing. The only way to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land is to spend a lot of time walking somewhere else.

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