How good is your memory of your last holiday? Which pictures come to your mind when you think about it? How many of these are visible on pictures you took during the trip? How often did you look at the pictures after returning home? And did you ever experience the sensation when a memory suddenly resurfaces because of something you see on a photo?
What I want you to do is think about these questions for a while. After that, please come back and take part in a little experiment: Let’s assume you are invited on the journey of your lifetime. A holiday that only you own and nobody else. You can do whatever you want, as long as you want, without anybody interfering. You won’t even have to pay for it, ever.
Now, here’s the rub: Your photos will be deleted after the journey. Also, your memories will be erased and you won’t remember anything.
Would you take the journey anyway?
Take your time. Put away everything that could attract your attention and think about that question before you continue to read this text.
The thought experiment isn’t my own. It was first verbalized by Daniel Kahneman. I used to think about it a lot since it can fundamentally change the way we travel. Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist and Nobel price winner and he poses the this very question every now and then when he explains the difference between experience and memory. Broadly speaking, the difference is as follows: You permanently experience and thus your brain never stops to process information. But only a very small part of that information gets stored as memory. Most of it just falls into oblivion.
Travel is a peculiar exception to that rule. When we travel we don’t experience more than at any other time but the quality of experience is different. Our brains get provided with a range of new information nonstop. Every unknown situation is experienced more consciously than a familiar situation. Thus, extraordinary experience is more likely to be stored as memory. This is why we usually remember the time and year in which we took a certain journey but struggle to arrange office memories into a time frame.
There’s even more to it: When on holiday we actively work to tighten our memory. We buy souvenirs and take photographs. Souvenir is French for to remember. There was a time before the pocket digital camera and smartphone era in which a holiday was the only time in which you would always have your camera with you. The camera allows us to frame certain experiences. On a photograph, experience melts with memory.
A photo is unerring evidence: I was there. I did that.
If you took the journey in question you wouldn’t only have to do without photos but also without memories. Put differently: You wouldn’t have proof that you ever left home at all – neither for yourself nor for anybody else.
But what about deeper experience? Nothing can teach and change you as profoundly as traveling. Is the knowledge of the traveler undocked from conscious memory? Is there maybe such a thing as unconscious memory? The key question is: Will you profit from a trip even if you can never actively remember it?
I think there is. But would I take the journey? It would be an adventure and I definitely love adventures. Still, my answer is no. I could do without photos for a certain time at least. But being aware that I will never be able to remember the very things I am experiencing sounds too scary to me.