In the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, ex-lovers Joel Barish and Clementine Kruczynski go to a brain clinic that cures their heartache by erasing their memories of one another. Nowadays, reminders of break-ups don't just lurk in our minds but in our inboxes and on social media. It's hard to escape the ghosts of relationships past because of Facebook, Instagram, and all the photos we have stashed away on our phones.
Scientists haven't yet figured out how to erase memories we don't want (though they're trying), but luckily, we have Google to help us forget. The new version of the Google Photos app lets you "hide a person from appearing," according to a Google+ post published this week. Google can do this thanks to its powerful facial recognition technology. The new feature also prevents that person from appearing if you use Google's "Rediscover" app to look back "at what you did a year ago, or two, or even 10 years ago." Photos aren't deleted, they're just stashed away in a digital locker until they're not so emotionally draining.
Rediscover is a feature that's similar of the Facebook Memories feature, which every so often reminds you what you did years ago with friends (or now foes.) Google, though, is trying to ensure that this digital memory recall only works for good memories.
These features are important because they are a manifestation of how technology is affecting—more and more—the way we choose to remember our lives. We have #tbt and #fbf (Throwback Thursday and Flashback Friday) to share our happy memories with our friends, and remind them of how cool we were, even as we age.
We are trying to get technology to reshape how we access our memories, putting an Instagram beautifying filter on our memories. Timehop, an app that is like Rediscover on steroids, accesses a user's social media footprint to create a virtual time capsule of nostalgia every day. Incredibly, the app now has 14 million users.
But is nostalgia different in the digital age? There's some research that suggests that outsourcing our memories to machines alters the very way our brains process and store our experiences. In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, participants were asked to go to a museum and observe the objects around them and photograph a sampling. The researchers found that when asked to recall the objects, the participants remembered fewer details about the artifacts they had snapped photos of—probably because they were focused on taking pictures rather than taking in the objects themselves.
What happens when our nostalgia is skewed toward only the positive? Does this make us less able to cope with hard situations IRL? Does it make us more detached and avoidant? The verdict is still out on this—the science is relatively new, after all. But it makes some sense that years of tech-enabled stuffing away of hard-to-deal with memories would have some long-term psychological impacts. Sometimes it's good to be confronted with the past so we can move forward rather than living in an emotional echo-chamber.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.