Digital devices allow us to capture our movements like never before, but how does this impact our travel memories? Kate Symons finds out.

If a tree falls while you are on holiday, but you don’t post any proof, did it really happen?

It’s the philosophical question of our time, although there are plenty who aren’t pondering it.

They’re too busy choosing a filter, adjusting the saturation and curating the wittiest hashtags.

Yet, for every hashtag-heavy holidaymaker, there’s a travel romantic dismissing the practice as an unnecessary distraction, pointless or even narcissistic.

Different though they may be, both types of traveller share a common objective: to capture unforgettable memories.

Through our recollections, the joy of travel can linger long after we return.

Furthermore, the nostalgia of past experiences can help concoct future adventures.

But who’s going about it the right way?

Neuroscientist Dr Despina Ganella, who specialises in emotional memory, suggests the cynics may be right; that technology could be hindering our memory retention.

“Our work in neuroscience tells us that attention is critical to the formation of memories,” says Dr Ganella, a postdoctoral research fellow at The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne.

“If your full attention is on [the experience] you’re more likely to form a proper memory, whereas if your attention is divided, there might only be the potential for a fuzzy memory to form.”

Dr Ganella points to a 2013 study, conducted by psychological scientist Dr Linda A Henkel, which shows people had worse memories of objects if they took photos of them.

For the study, participants were led on an art tour, some with cameras, some without.

Those with cameras were instructed to use them at every turn, snapping photos of each artwork, while the remaining participants were asked to simply observe – you know, like ol’ times.

Those who took photos remembered fewer objects, details about the objects and details about where the objects were located.

Henkel described this as “a photo-taking impairment effect”.

Further discrediting snap-happy travel, Dr Ganella offers another insight.

“The camera has also been suggested to act as a forgetting cue,” she says.

“Research has shown that sometimes when you know you’re going to have access to material later, it’s like sending a message to your brain that you can forget it.”

Of course, there is much more to the digitisation of travel than camera phones and photo-sharing apps.

Status updates are the new telegrams, emails have replaced postcards and journals have been trumped by a world-wide-web worth of travel blogs.

The intangible nature of many modern-day replacements means you’re likely creating more fleeting memories than enduring ones.

Plus, the physical act of writing has been proven to facilitate recall far better than its keyboard counterpart.

Although she personally subscribes to the popular ‘live in the moment’ mantra, Dr Ganella admits she doesn’t always lead by example.

She says the travel journal she updated so meticulously on holiday as a 22-year-old still triggers vivid memories, whereas countless photos taken on ‘digital’ journeys rarely get a second look.

Dr Ganella recalls a simpler time when a roll of film meant employing diligence to make the most of those 24 opportunities.

By way of slide nights and albums, those photos would not only stir memories, but also help keep them intact over time.

“Memories occur when one neuron is talking to another,” she explains.

“At the start it’s an electrical connection, but that connection is strengthened by being accessed repeatedly and it forms a strong memory that is stored more long-term.

[Nowadays] people spend less time looking at photos because the sheer volume is a deterrent.”

Are you making memories or just collecting them?

Dr Ganella fears that for many travellers, it’s the latter.

“You want to be living your experiences,” she says.

“Technology has its place and is amazing [but] it’s the whole mindfulness thing – being present, [experiencing] the sounds, the smells, the tastes.”

There is one consideration that perhaps matters most: what works for you?

Memories may hold firm, fade or evolve over time, but if they’re still being enjoyed, they’re serving a meaningful purpose.

And that’s what makes our holidays #unforgettable.


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