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Photos and memories

12 November 2019 - Dr Jan Orman

Like many people with aging brains I am concerned about the things I might fail to remember. My life is full of new experiences. I like to travel and while I’m away I take photos so I will remember those experiences  better (a bit like people with early dementia learn to write themselves notes) and so that I can share the memories with others. Not a lot different from what everybody else is doing I guess if perhaps for slightly different reasons.

Personal photography is a changed landscape

Once upon a time I was very careful about the photos I took. I didn’t grow up with photos – they were not a family tradition. Back then film was expensive, getting film developed was even more expensive and an envelope of glossy unfocused photos of trivia or of the footpath was not acceptable.

With my smart phone it doesn’t matter how many pictures I take of the same thing or of my feet, the photos cost nothing and can always be deleted and, who knows, amongst the rubbish there may be a prize-winning masterpiece or even something worthy of WhatsApping home to family and friends.

What’s the problem then?

The trouble is, while I’m taking the photos I suspect I’m missing a whole lot of other stuff – like the whales that passed by unnoticed (and unphotographed) the other day while I was intensely involved in photographing some interesting rock formations on the beach.

Some research shows that taking photos, or even just being in possession of a camera without even taking any photos, really does enhance visual memory. But the same research also shows that there is an accompanying decrease auditory memory. While thinking about the best camera angle you are less likely to hear the birds singing or to retain information imparted by your guide. I guess you need to decide what’s important to you.

In contrast, other research shows that taking a photo of something actually impairs your memory of the detail of it.

I know what they mean. Sometimes I look at my travel photos and get a rush of nostalgic pleasure, but at other times its hard to remember where and when the photo was taken, or I get surprised by the details  that I hadn’t remembered.

What else do people do to keep their memories alive?

Recently I’ve been using the voice memo on my smart phone to record snippets of sound when I travel – street noise, birds singing, leaves rustling underfoot, trains clattering by, people talking in mysterious other languages at adjacent café tables. This all started as an exercise in gathering sound bites that might be useful for podcasting, but it has turned into another way of remembering. Now I can attach the pictures to the sound memos and elicit a much richer memory.

My heartfelt desire is an app on my phone that will allow me to record the olfactory experience of travel as well!

I’ve heard that some people draw the things they want to remember and still others keep travel journals. These are old fashioned ideas but also techniques that encourage an immersive experience that might lead to richer memories.

But do I really need to do all this?

I’ve made a resolution. On my next trip I am not going to take any photos or make any sound recordings. Instead I am going to try to be fully immersed in every moment without distraction.  I will see just how much I depend on these aids to retain my memories.

And if it all fails, I’m sure my husband will have taken some pictures!







Dr Jan Orman
Dr Jan Orman

Jan is Sydney GP, private psychological medicine practitioner in Sydney’s inner west and a GP educator for Black Dog Institute.

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