Memory. Like most of the readers who will participate in today’s Stream of Consciousness challenge, I find myself thinking immediately of the song from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats. I never saw Cats, although a friend of mine from high school traveled all the way to New York to see it. At least, I think she did. You see? My memory is playing tricks on me again!
Memory and how we remember has been on my mind lately, primarily because of a post that I wrote a few days ago about pictures. I don’t want to rehash too much here, but the main thrust of my post was that I’m disturbed at how much I’m thrusting my camera into the faces of people I love. You’ve probably seen that sort of thing on Facebook–how people are taking pictures with their phones at restaurants, or, even asking the servers to take pictures of them. Evidently, this picture-taking epidemic has caused a problem for at least one restaurant, because service has been slowed down to such an extent that the restaurant has been — if not losing money, at least making less money. My piece wasn’t exactly about that aspect of public picture-taking, but I have realized that my obsession with recording the minutiae of my life is sometimes taking my focus off the people I’m with and even off the places I’m seeing.
After I published my piece, however, one of my readers startled me with the news that Radiolab had explored the way in which digital cameras are possibly affecting our memories — affecting them negatively, in fact, because we get so focused on capturing that image that we fail to hardwire its happening into our brains. I’m not a podcast person, at this point in my life, but, happily, Radiolab can also be digested in its blog format, so I checked out the link. The Radiolab folks cited at least one study that had been done on the way recording our lives in pixels is affecting our memory of them. One of the points they made is that seeing and physically handling the pictures in a scrapbook, as opposed to paging through images on a screen, somehow fixes the images in our memories more effectively. The involvement of senses other than sight was part of the reason; also, if you pored over an old family album with relatives, you might talk about this recollection or that.
What I took away from the Radiolab article — unfortunately, it went off in a very technical and somewhat inconsistent direction, looking at future ways of digitally recording and replaying images — was that the way we store memories is complex. If anything, I have become more committed to picture-taking in the last day or so, partly because of the Radiolab piece. Yes, I need to watch my manners, and I should exercise judgment about when, what, and whom to photograph. But those images do stir up memories later, memories both good and bad but memories that I don’t want to lose.
One of the experiences that has also caused me to soften my stance about the pervasive picture-taking that I do was going through some old Halloween pictures yesterday. My family is slowly becoming a small one, as children go off to college or take jobs away from home, and I found myself missing my oldest children on a day when, in the past, I would have been scurrying about in a frenzy, trying to find the missing pieces to a costume or putting the last few strokes of acrylic paint on a pumpkin or prowling around the attic, trying to figure out how many plastic pumpkins we had last year. I remember some intense moments from Halloweens gone by–when the red hairpaint just wouldn’t work on Emily’s hair; when Thomas had the stomach flu on Halloween and couldn’t join us at the neighbors’ for chili; when we waited too late to trick or treat, and so many porch lights had already been turned off; when the four-year-old rebelled against the expensive, pre-ordered costume and insisted on putting together his own Narnia costume (Peter or Edmund? no one can remember for sure).
But, intense and traumatic as the memories were (the handmade Narnia costume over the pricey Bob the Builder costume was actually a triumph of creativity over commercialism), I was thrilled when they mostly came flooding back, as I scanned in old pictures and searched in bewilderment for the October pictures that seemed to be missing from the digital files. At the risk of boring all my Facebook friends to tears, I put together an album of old Halloween pictures of my kids, with a few friends thrown in here and there.
I didn’t do it to impress anyone — and I sincerely hope that it didn’t: the “best” costumes were the ones that my mother had made, and there were so many unpleasant or awkward moments behind the scenes.
No, I put together the album for my kids: I haven’t put pictures in scrapbooks in years, aside from a sporadic set of pictures from the time that snapfish threatened to delete my account if I didn’t order prints (the prints were free — they just wanted to know that I was out there). I wanted to make sure that my kids could reinvigorate their memories of those years. Because the years passed so, so quickly. If scanning pictures or — better but far more time-consuming — making photo books or even printing out pictures and putting them into scrapbooks will help us remember those days when we all sat down to dinner at the same table, I will do it. And — in the short run — a Facebook album that my kids who live elsewhere can look at is better than nothing.