by Greg Dickinson, The Telegraph, April 27, 2018
It was the mini-est of mini breaks. Last October, three old school mates and I went on a weekend trip to l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in the south of France.
We drank too much rosé, played too many rounds of cards and wandered purposelessly – reverting to our 18-year-old selves and ignoring the looming Monday back at work.
Then a few days after arriving home I got a notification on my iPhone: ‘You have a new memory.'
I clicked on the notification and found a folder of photos from the weekend away entitled 'France, Oct 2017 trip'. Convenient enough, I thought, even if it did feel a bit dystopian.
However, if recent research is to be believed, there is a 50 per cent chance that I suffer from ‘digital amnesia’, and this type of reliance on technology does not bolster but rather damages my chances of properly remembering a trip.
According to new research led by Professor Charles Spence of Oxford University, more than half of the UK population suffers from so-called digital amnesia due to our over-reliance on smart phones to store our memories for us.
The study, with over 2,000 adult participants, found that the length of time memories stay fresh in the mind correlates with the number of senses used when creating them.
While we only use one sense (sight) when capturing a photo, or two (sight and sound) when filming something, a creative activity such as drawing activates sight, touch, sound and 'proprioception', or position sense, which means the brain can create a more solidified memory.
British artist Philippa Stanton has the rare neurological condition of synaesthesia (to experience colours, textures and shapes while listening, tasting or smelling) and participated in the research project alongside Tui Sensorialists. She said: "Much of the pleasure from holidays comes from remembering, yet research reveals the average Brit’s holiday memories fade after less than two weeks.
“Our love affair with the digital image and growing affiliation to the ‘if it’s not on social it didn’t happen’ mantra, could be inadvertently fuelling a memory bank deficit,” she added.
“Scientific evidence even suggests the more senses we stimulate, the more robust the multisensory memory that is formed. Technology keeps our eyes occupied. But while it plays to our dominant visual sense, it fails to connect with our emotional senses.”
There's no doubt there is some truth in this study. While I might not draw, I agree that the trips I have written about in the past have been filed away in the memory banks with particular clarity and colour.
So should we really be ditching the smartphone and picking up the pencil to create more lasting memories of our holidays?
One obvious retort is that we can quite easily spend five minutes photographing something and then go on to some contemplation or creative activity – the two actions aren’t mutually exclusive. Yes, I took a picture of the creaking old waterwheel that dipped into the canal in l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, but we also spent a few minutes trying to spin it and figure out how the thing worked.
It doesn’t seem like the digital memory – the photograph – will scrub out the mental one. If anything, it feels like it will help to transport me back to spinning that waterwheel in years to come.
But perhaps even more pertinent: to worry too much about efficient memory-making is to miss the point of why we go away in the first place.
Recollecting specific moments from a trip is of course part of the joy of going away – I look forward to reminiscing with Liam, Nathan and Jimmy in years to come about the plate of boiled octopus that made Nathan’s face go green.
But to focus too much on how we forge those memories – be it through a photo, writing or drawing – is to overlook the more profound pleasure of a holiday.
Like the sheer excitement of being somewhere new. Forming or reinforcing a bond with someone. Momentarily forgetting about work. Getting slowly sloshed over an afternoon. Laughing, properly. Or most important of all – winning a round of cards.
Philippa Stanton argues: “It’s only by really engaging with our experiences on holiday through all of our senses that we can process all the stimulating information to lay down the sorts of easily retrievable memories that will last.”
Truth be told, I’m not too worried about the storage solution for my memories of our trip to l’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. I'm fairly confident some memories will last, whether digitally or through good old fashioned grey matter. But even if they don't, having had a wonderful time in the moment, and the fuzzy hangover of that feeling, somehow means more.