Are Digital Memories Ruining Our Real Ones?

Are Digital Memories Ruining Our Real Ones?

Think of a recent experience that you or your friends video-recorded and then watched later.

Close your eyes and try to remember as much as you can from that moment.

What do you remember? What do you see?

Can you recall the actual experience? Can you remember what it looked like and felt like to be present in that moment? Or can you remember only the photograph or video you had recorded and then seen?

What does this tell you about the impact of digital recordings on your memories in general: How distinct is your memory? How much of what you can recall is from the time of your experience? How much of your memory is based on watching and rewatching it later?

Do you think videos enhance or detract from your memories?

In “Is the Immediate Playback of Events Changing Children’s Memories?,” Julia Cho writes that looking at a video right after an event can alter the actual memory of the experience:

The night of the elementary school talent show, we came home to celebrate with ice cream when my mother took out her iPhone to show a video she’d taken of my 10-year-old daughter’s performance. My daughter had played Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” on the piano by ear and sang along. Despite her nerves, she got out there in the middle of the stage in a new dress with scattered sequins and sang her best, bowing to an audience of clapping parents before she walked off stage — an expression of relief and pride on her face.

When I saw my mother’s finger hovering over “play” on her phone, my daughter leaning over her shoulder, I stopped her: “You know what … let’s just let her enjoy the moment.”

I’ve seen the way my daughter’s facial expression changes, her eyes squint slightly, and her neck pulls her head back just a little when she watches videos of herself. I knew that in my daughter’s mind she’d felt like a rock star up there, and that seeing the video might surprise her and change the way she remembered the experience. It’s not that her performance wasn’t good — just that it might be slightly different on video than the way she experienced it, the way we all feel when we hear ourselves on a recording and say “Wait — that’s what I sound like?”

I wanted to keep her experience sacred for at least a little bit longer. I wanted to keep it her experience.

It turns out that my hesitancy has a genuine scientific basis. Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard whose books include “The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers,” told me, “We know from research that reactivating an experience after it occurs can have large effects on subsequent memory for that experience, and depending on what elements of an experience are reactivated, can even change the original memory.”

Many studies have been done on how a person taking a photograph reinforces or reshapes their memory, but what about our children — the subject of our constant documentation? Does seeing themselves in the third person change or even falsify their memories? Instead of remembering the experience of singing up there on the stage looking out at the audience from her own eyes, my daughter’s memory becomes entangled with the videographer’s perspective from the audience looking up at the stage.

The article continues:

What would have happened if I let my daughter watch the video right after her experience? According to Dr. Siegel she would have quickly moved from being a participant to being a more distant observer.

“A half-hour after the show, instead of being able to languish and enjoy the rich bodily sensations and emotions that accompany autobiographical experience and memory and narrative, she’s now being thrust into the observer autobiographical experience because she’s watching herself on the screen,” he said.

I have no videos of my elementary school performances, ballet recitals or birthday mornings from my early ’80s childhood. Videos were not sent via phone for instant viewing. Even film had to be developed when I was growing up; vacation pictures would be viewed a week or so after the experience. We got to linger in the experience for a while, from our own perspective, not the camera’s. Even though many of my childhood memories are hazy, they’re mine.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

— Are digital memories ruining our real ones? Why or why not? How difficult is it for you to separate your actual experiences from your videos and photographs of them? How have digital recordings of you affected your self-image?

— The article concludes:

It’s been a week since my daughter’s performance. “I can’t believe it’s over!” she says twirling around the kitchen. She knows I have a video of the performance, but, interestingly enough, she hasn’t asked to see it, and I haven’t volunteered it. I think I’ll let us both remember it just as it was that night for now: raw and unfiltered, and from our own perspectives, perfect.

Do you think Ms. Cho made the right decision to withhold the video from her daughter? If you were her daughter, would you have demanded to see it? Do you agree with Dr. Daniel Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, that videos can “rob our moments of their ephemeral power”?

— Have you ever thought of recording an experience (through video or photographs) and then decided not to because you felt it would detract from the moment, or from future memories of it? Having read the article, do you think you are more likely now to put your camera away next time?

— How good is your memory? How important are your memories to your identity and life? What do you think of the author’s statement that “Even though many of my childhood memories are hazy, they’re mine”? Is this a convincing argument for putting down the video camera? Or do you think her perspective is somehow outdated or irrelevant to people from your generation who have grown up surrounded by technology?

— Do you have a favorite memory? Was a camera present to record it?

— How much of your life has been recorded digitally? How often do you rewatch these images and videos? Do you think videos enhance or detract from your memories? If you have children of your own, would you want to videotape everything — from their first steps to high school graduation? Or would you ever hold back?