Travel, Memory And The Passage Of Time

memory and the passage of time

Since returning to Australia, I’ve slowly been getting through the back catalogue of photos that I took during my travels in 2011, and blogging about those travels.  Something that I have thought about quite often is the question of how my posts about my 2011 travels might differ being made in 2013 compared to if they had been made in 2011, by reason of my ability to recall each trip.

That is, how has each post been affected by memory and the passage of time?

“Decay Theory” proposes that memory fades due to the mere passage of time.  “Interference Theory” on the other hand, proposes that memory fades due to successive interfering events.  There is evidence to support both theories, and the actuality of what happens probably with a combination of the two.  What is not in dispute though, is that we do forget things.  Time passes, the present moves to the forefront of our minds, and the past is pushed back.

A  few days ago on Twitter, someone I follow retweeted a tweet by Holly Branson (Richard Branson’s Daughter).  This got me thinking about Virgin, and a job interview that I had at Virgin’s head office in ?, London a few years back …and there it was, the question mark.

What was the area in which the office was located?  It was in Hammersmith, the spot and associated road connected Shepherd’s Bush Road to Hammersmith Road.  When I used to walk home from work, I’d sometimes cut through here as an alternate route, perhaps once a week.  What was it called though?

When I was living in London, it would have been at the top of my mind, available for recollection without any effort, yet here I was straining my mind, determined not to look it up on the Internet.  After a few minutes, and a nice shower to wake me up, it suddenly came to me – Brook Green!  I was quite happy that I’d been able to finally remember the name without resorting to any other sources, but was also saddened by the fact that my memories of London were slipping.  Something that was a part of weekly life less than 2 years ago was now just a memory, not important enough for my mind to give priority to.

What does this say then, about the content of the posts that I am making in 2013 about travels that occurred in 2011?  Am I forgetting to post about certain interesting things?  Are any of my words and recollections unintentionally incorrect?  By contrast, are my posts more focused because my mind has let the “fluff” disappear and only the relevant information and experiences remain?  Is the content better because instead of being clouded by the immediate excitement of the experience, I am recalling these adventures with the benefit of hindsight?

Memory has been proven time and time again to be a very imperfect, fallible thing.  Most of the “forgetting” that occurs in our brains actually occurs immediately after the event.  Memory is highly prone to suggestion and other distorting influences.  In fact there is strong evidence to suggest that about 25% of individuals can be easily induced to remember events that never happened to them – false memories that feel completely real.

Memory is a fascinating area of research, and one that has really exploded since the 1990s and continues to be an area of great focus for cognitive psychologists today.  Exploring this any further would be far outside the scope of this post, but needless to say the more one reads about the mind, and the “shifting sands” that are the landscapes of our memories, the more one questions just how accurate their memory is – certainly so in the context of writing travel blog updates in 2013 that relate to 2011 travels!

Think of examples that you might have encountered yourself?  Have you found yourself amongst a group of friends, sharing a story, when one of you recalled a “fact” which not everyone who was present at the event is convinced occurred, or occurred in the manner being described?  Have you found someone incorporating an event that occurred while traveling on one occasion into a completely unrelated instance of travel – knowing that they are wrong but they are completely oblivious to it?

Scary isn’t it?

What then, is the best way for me to ensure that what I’m writing is accurate?  To ensure that what I’m telling you on this blog is the complete truth?  Keep a diary as both a place where things that have been forgotten can be recalled, and where things that have been recalled can be checked.  This is something that I’ve never done before, but will certainly start to do on my travels going forward.

It is clear that if I had blogged about some of my 2011 travels in 2011, the content and structure of the posts would have been very different to what it is in 2013.  In some ways, blog posts made as close in time to the event are the best blog posts, but in other ways, blog posts can also benefit from the passage of time, certainly if the majority of forgetting occurs only moments after the event takes place.

Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle?  Keeping a diary to ensure factual accuracy, and allowing the passage of a few weeks so that the excitement of the experience can be tempered with some hindsight and reassessment?

There’s certainly no correct answer to this, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it in the comments section below.  I think it’s certainly a topic that would benefit from some further insightful brainstorming.

Oh and by the way, I never got the job at Virgin.  Overqualified they said!



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