Of Mice and Mem­o­ries

Was the way we were re­ally the way it was?

Business Traveler (USA) - - TALKING POINT -

It’s Spring, the time of year when a travel writer’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of get­ting back on the road. Af­ter the long and bru­tal win­ter many of us have seen in North Amer­ica, the time is long over­due to pack the bags, dust off the pass­port and once again breathe in the in­tox­i­cat­ing aroma of jet fuel.

By the time you read this, your hum­ble edi­tor will prob­a­bly have at least a cou­ple of new used board­ing passes crum­pled up in my brief­case (yes, be­ing a belt-and-sus­penders kind of guy, I still print board­ing passes just in case my smart­phone needs a backup), and a cou­ple of dozen in­ter­est­ing new pic­tures tak­ing up mem­ory on my phone.

Speak­ing of mem­ory, those dig­i­tal mem­o­ries are of­ten what I rely on to jog my own mem­ory – about places, faces and mo­ments in my trav­els. And it seems as the num­ber of places and faces grows, the more those images an­i­mate my rec­ol­lec­tions. In fact, some trav­el­ers in this dig­i­tal-de­pen­dent age go so far as to say that when they go some­place new, un­less they have a pic­ture, it was like they were never re­ally there.

Of course, we all do that in some way. The ar­ti­facts of our trav­els are the touch­stones, lit­er­ally, of our ex­pe­ri­ences. The other day, I picked up an old ex­pired pass­port. Look­ing at the dates and des­ti­na­tions stamped on its pages was like be­ing beamed back in time. We’ve all had the same thing hap­pen to us when we hear a familiar song or thumb through back copies of Busi­ness Trav­eler.

Funny thing about mem­o­ries, though; ap­par­ently they’re not all they’re cracked up to be, ac­cord­ing to neu­ro­science. One the­ory sug­gests that our mem­o­ries are not ac­tu­ally fixed in­stances in the past, but rather a col­lec­tion of im­pres­sions that we haul out from time to time and re­play in our minds. Trou­ble is, the re­search says each time we hit rewind, we ac­tu­ally erase the mem­ory and‘over­write’it with a fresh, up­dated ver­sion – com­plete with what­ever lapses, in­ven­tions or dis­tor­tions we choose to add.

It’s like a cere­bral ver­sion of the old game of Tele­phone. Keep re­peat­ing un­til you get it wrong. Now science has taken it a step fur­ther. Re­searchers at the Industrial Physics and Chem­istry Higher Ed­u­ca­tional In­sti­tu­tion in Paris re­port they have fig­ured out how to mod­ify mem­o­ries in mice while they sleep – mem­o­ries that never re­ally hap­pened. Of course as with all good ex­per­i­ments in­volv­ing mouse be­hav­ior, this one fea­tures mazes, food and elec­trodes. But the up­shot is that when the mice wake up, they make a bee­line for a place where they re­mem­ber the food was, even though it wasn’t.

It’s a long way from mousey brains to hu­man mem­ory, but some neu­ro­sci­en­tists are spec­u­lat­ing that we’re not all that far from be­ing able to plant mem­o­ries of va­ca­tions we never took, pre­sum­ably sav­ing us all that has­sle and ex­pense of ac­tu­ally trav­el­ing there. Of course, with­out get­ting all sci-fi-para­noid, To­tal Re­call -es­que, if we can do that, what else…?

In a world where so much of our re­al­ity is be­ing – buzz­word alert! – in­ter­me­di­ated by tech­nol­ogy, it’s more im­por­tant than ever to set aside at least some hu­man ex­pe­ri­ences for the hu­man touch. Travel is one such ex­pe­ri­ence – even if it takes tech­nol­ogy to help pre­serve the mem­o­ries of that ex­pe­ri­ence.

So as you travel, keep your keep­sakes, up­date your iPod playlist, take lots and lots of pic­tures, and hang on to your back copies of Busi­ness Trav­eler.

It’s where the mem­o­ries are.


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