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I am on the deck of a houseboat, sitting next to a camera. We peer over the bow at the Kerala backwaters. Inside my head, on either side of my brain, are two little sea-horse-shaped pieces of tissue called hippocampi that are whirring away, recording what I am seeing as a memory. The camera sees the same image and feeds it to the hippocampi of the man who has been permanently attached to it for the past four days.
On this holiday in Kerala, I have relied on my eyes to do my seeing for me. The man stuck to the camera, my cousin, has viewed the entire trip through a lens, his finger constantly shuffling between the button on his DSLR and the one on his GoPro remote.
When we are back in Mumbai, my little hippocampi will be called into action from time to time, feeding me memories when I want to recall my trip, or sometimes when I’m not expecting them. My cousin’s will be busy too. Every time he looks at one of his photos, a visual cue will quickly pass a message through his brain till it releases the memory of that photograph.
But the brain, hippocampi and all, is a curious being. My memories will change constantly—without any breadcrumbs left on the trail, will my recollections begin to fit into the image I have created of my life? My cousin’s memories of events too may change subtly every time he looks at his photos and picks up different elements in the frame. Will he eventually still be able to remember the details of the original experience beyond what the image tells him?
“The more photographs you take, the better chances you have of capturing ones that are poignant and reflect the mood you were in when you took them,” explains Joshua Sariñana, a US-based neuroscientist who is also a passionate photographer. “Then, when you look at that image from time to time, it acts as a strong visual cue for an important and accurate memory. But there is a plateau. If you look at too many images, your memories could start to become muddled up.”
It is not just the volume of photographs you take that influences your memories. Conversations with people at opposite ends of the spectrum—those who take hundreds of photographs on a holiday and those who take very few—revealed that individuals have completely different processes when it comes to deciding what to photograph, when to look at images and how often, and all this ends up influencing how their photos interact with their memories.
Sometimes, a photograph may begin to affect a memory even before the experience takes place. Dhruv Malkani, for example, says he often knows what photograph he wants at a particular place before he has been there. “Recently, I was in Rome with my wife and one-year-old daughter and I climbed this hillock on my own just to get a panoramic shot of Rome,” he says.
That almost never happens to Shonan Kothari, a 27-year-old who has recently moved from India to Antwerp, Belgium. The hundreds of photos she takes from each of her vacations are “mostly random minor details that I notice on a trip—an interesting-looking tree or a bird”.
Both Malkani and Kothari look at their photos immediately after a holiday and then continue to view selected ones at regular intervals. But the images seem to spark different kinds of memories in each. The former remembers not so much what he was feeling when a particular image was being taken, but how the shot was set up—which angle his wife, Mahima, told him to take it from, what he had to do to get it, how many times he had to click to get it right.
These kinds of photographs, which a subconscious instinct spurs one to capture, tend to be more likely to evoke emotion later.
Contrived photographs, on the other hand, may end up leaving you with a false impression of a moment. Sariñana explains that manipulated photographs can actually implant a false memory. In an early 2000s study by psychologists at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington, several people were shown a fake photo of themselves in a hot-air balloon as a child. After viewing the photo on three separate occasions, about half not only believed they had been in a balloon, but said they remembered details of this fictional event in their lives.
It is unlikely anything this dramatic will happen with a photograph you take on a holiday, but looking at an image regularly may slightly alter the way you view a certain event. “There was this one trip my wife and I took to Guatemala on which we were both quite stressed,” Sariñana says. “But the shot I revisit most from that holiday is one of my wife on a boat looking extremely peaceful.”
A photograph can serve as an anchor around which a story is held firm in your mind. This often requires picking the right photo to base your memory of an event on. Alvito Falcon, a 30-year-old commercial photographer, only looks at the photos he has taken two or three weeks after a holiday. Then he picks a few to print in a large size.
Looking at one photograph of a grey and green vista in Turtuk, Jammu and Kashmir, with a local man standing in the corner, signalling something with his arms, is enough to create a vivid vision in Falcon’s mind of the entire journey to the remote village and the various sights he took in on the way.
This ability to travel beyond the borders of a frame is key to photographs being positive influences on our memories. Sariñana says recent research has shown that excessive exposure to images can actually damage the hippocampi and dull people’s imagination to the point that they can no longer remember what was around them when they see a photograph of themselves.
This is a serious danger in an age when digital cameras encourage us to click mercilessly and social media leads to anxiety that we shouldn’t miss a single shot. But it is exactly because images have become so ubiquitous that George Binoy prefers not to take them when he is on vacation. “Why would I take a photograph of a beautiful beach or mountain when there are so many of them on the Internet?” he says. Binoy, who works for Bengaluru-based sports website ESPNcricinfo, barely takes any photos on his trips, and those that he does are mainly just to send to his parents.
However, he does sometimes look at the photographs his friends have taken and is occasionally surprised by an image. “There is this photo my friend Hemant took of our trekking group at the end of a long climb,” he says. “Before I saw the photo, I remembered that moment as an exultant one. But when I saw the image, we all looked completely shattered—it had been a gruelling trek.” Thanks to the photograph, Binoy now does not just look back at that moment as one of celebration, but remembers the exhaustion he felt.
Every person I spoke to, though, could remember at least one moment from a holiday that simply could not be captured by a camera, however many photos they took. Binoy says the sheer size of the Taroko Gorge in Taiwan cannot be represented in two dimensions; Kothari actually switched her camera off when the Northern Lights appeared before her; even Malkani, with his eager trigger finger, admits a photo could not do justice to the ecstasy that lit up his daughter’s face when she was allowed— after a long wait—into the water in Bangkok.