First published by the Sydney Morning Herald 23 August, 2014
Years ago, when I was a student and living in a share house in Melbourne, one of my flatmates, a law student and heroin addict, went on a bender (that’s what he called them). With a blood-filled syringe he wrote a message on our toilet walls and then he stuck a knife in the cistern. I can’t remember what he wrote, but the night is seared in my memory.
I reminisced about this incident when I caught up with old friends during a recent trip to Melbourne, taken in part to mark 20 years since I moved to Sydney. My trip was a nostalgic one, and it left me thinking about memory: how it works and how, in our distracted world, it often fails us.
The things we do remember can sometimes surprise us. One former housemate recalls being genuinely impressed when I made a meal with pasta, tinned corn and grated cheese (we were 18 and this was well before MasterChef). Sometimes memories can be shaky. I remembered sharing one house with another friend, but she insists I’d already moved out by the time she lived there. Another friend couldn’t remember I was the one who rang him years ago with the grim news of a mutual friend’s death.
“If we had Facebook back then, we could go back and check what happened,” I said to one friend. “Yes, but we probably wouldn’t have gone out and had so many adventures,” he retorted.
He has a point, but there’s another way that living so much of our life online, and distracted by multiple gadgets, can work against creating memories.
“Attention is critical for the initiation of memory formation,” Dr Jee Hyun Kim, the Head of Developmental Psychobiology at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, tells me. “If people are doing multiple things at the same time, checking their phones and emails while having a conversation or while travelling, the memory of that time will be fuzzier than those who don’t engage in technology at the time.”
“One study showed that when people are taking photographs they have an impaired memory of the event compared to people who are engaging in the event without any photography.” She adds: “Students that pay a lot of attention to their phones have terrible memories of my instructions.”
Neuroscientists also tell us that the five senses – particularly the sense of smell – are crucial to the way memories are stored. In the real world, all five senses – sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell – are almost always switched on. Until technology makes another developmental leap, whenever we’re online – posting, liking, tweeting – we’re only using our eyes (and sometimes our ears, when we’re listening to music or Skyping a friend).
In Melbourne I drove past the student union building where I worked one night when INXS played during their comeback tour. I can still recall the hot and humid atmosphere: I threw cooling bottles of water on the crowd, and I was close enough to the stage that I could almost feel the spray of Michael Hutchence’s sweat.
At dinner later that evening I reminisced about a trip I’d made with two friends to a beach one summer nearly two decades ago. At the end of the day, car windows down, the taste of salty water still in our mouths, Aretha Franklin came on the radio. I can vividly see my friends’ faces, smiling and singing along: “The moment I wake up/Before I put on my makeup.”
Our sense of who we are is, in the end, just a product of our accumulated memories. There’s much to be said for storing and sharing our memories online, outside of ourselves. But if constantly posting and tweeting and sharing everything that happens to us means we’re not fully paying attention, and we’re not forming lasting memories, it’s no wonder that as soon as our gadgets disappear – when there’s no power, or we’re in a spot so remote there’s no signal – we can sometimes start to feel like we cease to exist at all.
Perhaps we should all listen to my friend’s five-year-old: sounding more like a wise 65-year-old, he recently told his parents he likes to store happy memories not on his hard drive, but on his “heart drive”.