Of Mice and Memories
Was the way we were really the way it was?
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.