Your iPhone Could Make You Forget Your Favorite Moments

The technology behind fuzzy memories.

Making fun of this summer’s Olympics opening ceremony has become as much of a tradition as the lighting of the torch. We’ve heard the jokes about the creepy baby, the field of hospital beds, the inexplicably multiplied Mary Poppins thwarting of Voldemort (what?), but what struck me as the most bizarre of all is the American athletes using their cell phones as they entered the stadium. I mean … really? Did they think it wasn’t being filmed?

My brother’s wife gave birth to twins this weekend (so afraid to even type that sentence because I might go off on a tangent of squeals about how freaking cute those guys are!), and her sister took photo after photo of the babies, posing them and Steven and Lisa over and over again. When I saw her, she began to show me the pictures, saying, of course, “Look how cute they are here” and “Look at them here.” And I kept thinking, I am looking at them, here. I realized I hadn’t taken one photo; I had been too busy snorting the smell coming off the babies’ heads.

This incessant smartphone photo-snapping and video-ing is taking away from real-time experience, and I’ve got science behind me. When we are in an experience, every sense we engage involves a neural pathway. Every neural pathway we engage triggers deeper, richer memory when we attempt to remember the experience. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m thinking that it’s harder to engage the senses when we’re holding our devices with one of our hands and looking at the world through it, as well as looking at its screen half the time. The device that we’re using to keep the memory is standing in the way of making the memory. The suggestion to “be in the moment” is nothing new, but now if you’re having trouble, there’s an app for that.

I love my phone, but I’ve misused it too, of course. This year, at the 4th of July fireworks, my own attempts at getting a good shot to use as a screensaver pretty much took over the whole event. “Is this the finale? “Is this the finale?” “I didn’t get a good shot yet! I hope this isn’t the finale!”

We’ve all seen how children now react when we take their picture. They only know a life with digital cameras, and so they accost us, immediately after the shot, running up and saying, “Let me see!” Affirmation (“There I am! There I am.”) and instant gratification come easily.

Roles often get confused, too, as often we are watching someone watch something: “Here I am at the concert, the football game.” So we view the viewer or, in the case of the Olympic athlete parade, we watch them watch us watching them. What?

My lovely sister-in-law (mother of those ridiculously cute twin boys!) is glad her sister took those pictures, because she herself was just too overwhelmed by the babies themselves to do so. I’m sure the experience of the athletes’ entrance into the stadium will stick with them, but I’m betting it would have even if they didn’t take the photos of the stands and each other.

One of my students once (facetiously) said, “You know we don’t believe it unless we see it on FB,” and I’m thinking we’re all moving into perceiving our lives along those lines—an experience isn’t lived unless it’s livestreamed.