Call For Comments: Memory Triggers In The Digital Age

From Wayne:

I think about memory a lot. I’ve always had a pretty good one, enough so that people comment on it. My ancient mother has lost a lot of her short term memory in recent months, so that’s on my mind. I’m getting old enough to feel nostalgia for stuff. I’ve been going through some boxes from storage and finding old letters and other memorabilia.

It’s the memorabilia I want to focus on here. We seem to encode a lot of our memories onto physical stuff. The whole souvenir industry is based on this. You go to Niagara Falls and buy some little tchotchke to remind you that you’ve been there. Now, you’re not likely to actually forget billions of tons of water crashing over a falls, but the postcard with a picture of it reminds you of the event. It’s there to trigger memories. Photographs do the same thing.

Mamouna album cover

But I’m more interested in the things that weren’t specifically designed to be a reminder of a moment. Here’s the anecdote of what led me to this train of thought. On my way out the door to work I grabbed a CD to listen to in the car (yes… I still listen to CDs). I looked at my CD rack and without a lot of deliberation grabbed a disc I haven’t listened to in probably years, Mamouna by Bryan Ferry. It’s a fine Bryan Ferry disc, when but I’m in that mood there are many other Roxy Music or solo albums of his I usually default to, and admittedly not one I’ve listened to very much. Upon listening to it very few of the songs really stood out as something I remembered. It might as well have been a brand new album to me.

But – and here’s the thing – what I did remember was exactly where I bought it. It was a very rural flea market in the mid-90s with my Mom and Dad in a hollow somewhere on the Pennsylvania/West Virginia border. Mamouna was on a table of CDs for three bucks each. I remember wondering who the hell in that vicinity had ever bought a Bryan Ferry album, especially one of his lesser known ones. Maybe it’s my music fan snobbery peeking out, but I was floored. To find it there among the classic Southern Rock and Country albums that represented most of the rest of the selection just seemed unlikely. This led to a number of memories. On that same day I ran into Fuzzy Randolph, a music professor from my college days I hadn’t seen for awhile. That was a specific remembrance. More generally, it led to thinking about going to flea markets with my family.

The point here is that a lot of things in my brain were triggered by an object that had just been sitting unnoticed on my CD rack for years. Is it an important memory? Not really, but it was a pleasant one that is a part of my overall personal narrative.

There are a lot of things like this for me. There are books on my shelves I will never read again, but I’ll never get rid of because they are symbolic of specific times, places, and people. It’s not the content, it’s the object. I don’t think I’m alone in this phenomenon. I think it is just how memory works at times.

So, finally, here’s the question I want to ponder on this episode of Vox Popcast; with the preponderance of digital media and the growing absence of actual stuff, how do we encode those memories? An mp3 file or a Kindle book aren’t going to jump off the shelf and remind me of where I was when I first experienced it. I don’t think they hold all of the associated memory pathways either. We’ve talked a little about how digital interfaces change the way we consume and process media. I’m interested in how we end up retaining that media and its associations.

I’m not even saying it’s a bad thing. I don’t believe ‟these kids these days with their fancy gadgets won’t have any memory left,” or some such nonsense. But I do think it changes our interaction with memorabilia. What kind of memories do we have if there is nothing to trigger them?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

image of brain showing how memory triggers are formed
From Mav:

I find memory fascinating too. If I correctly understand the 25 cent version of the complicated cognitive psychology stuff that my wife, Stephanie, has tried to teach me (and I think we’re going to try to have her on the show for this), the way memories work is that they are physically imprinted on your brain. That is, when you experience something, an actual neural pattern in encoded into the physical meat of your brain and that’s the memory. When you recall an event, you’re actually firing that memory pathway again. You are, in a very real way, re-experiencing it. So when you encounter a souvenir, memento or other memory trigger token, say Wayne’s Bryan Ferry CD or the Niagra Falls T-shirt, those neurons fire, and that memory really “happens” in your brain. You really do experience it again.

animated gif of EU's "Da' Butt" video

I’m less worried about musical memories. I don’t know about other people, but I tell my iPhone to just play random music all of the time, and while it’s not the same as picking up an album, I do get a similar experience from hearing Experience Unlimited’s “Da’ Butt” randomly come up and I’m like “Holy Shit! this takes me back to 8th grade!” What, I don’t do is tell my iPad to “show me a random book” the way I would pull one from a bookshelf. I don’t tell Netflix to show me a random movie. As silly as it sounds, I’ve got a much better chance of randomly re-encountering “Da’ Butt” in the digital age (which just happened last week) than I do of randomly re-encountering Watership Down, a book that I adored around the same time period. In the old days, I might put on a late night TV on a local network and go “oh it’s a Seinfeld, I remember that one! I think it was sophomore year of college. Let me watch this.” But in the streaming world, I never watch random syndicated reruns. I have Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, HBOMax, etc. Who has time for syndication?

still image from Space Jame: A New Legacy featuring many memory trigger easter eggs

But then I wonder if that’s part of the media nostalgia kick? We’ve done shows before about why we love comfort media and why nostalgia is a thing. And sure, maybe one of the reasons we’re obsessed with rebooting TV shows, or making things like Riverdale, Powerpuff Girls, or Nancy Drew is because it’s a safe bet on proven IP that consumers have loved since childhood. But in the last year I’ve hear rumblings of plans to reboot Battlestar Galactica and True Blood which last aired in 2010 and 2014 respectively. This summer, there’s going to be a reboot of the Resident Evil film series, which ended in 2016. I just saw the trailer to Space Jam: A New Legacy, which is packed so full of WB movie IP easter eggs that it makes Ready Player One look trite. I get it… the whole concept of Looney Tunes is nostalgia in the first place, so it makes sense to toss in Flintstones and Maltese Falcon. But it also has Game of Thrones characters. That ended TWO YEARS AGO. Remember, everyone hated it!

So, I wonder, is this a reaction to the loss of physical media and a need to maintain memories by keeping them ever present? Are we recreating our media over and over again digitally because we don’t have analog media to serve as mementos? So yeah, let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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