Sometimes when I scroll through the thousand or so photos stored on my iPhone, the images I find there feel divorced from the life that I remember having lived. There are photos of friends and I smiling at the top of a mountain, but I can't quite recall the feeling of the sun on our faces or what we were smiling about. I snapped a photo of the moment and left it for my iPhone to file away, up in the cloud, instead of in my brain. Researchers call this “the photo-taking impairment effect." By constantly creating digital archives of our lives, we may be robbing our memories.
But what if you lacked the ability to create those types of memories in the first place? A fascinating story in Wired profiles Susie McKinnon, a woman who lacks what's known as episodic memories, which are what allow you to recall the jitters you felt before your high school prom or how you felt the last time you went on a beach vacation. Episodic memory is how we reconstruct a first-person narrative of our lives; McKinnon lacks that and so, while she can recall facts about her life, she cannot remember what it was like to live them.
While social media like Facebook and Instagram would seem to offer someone like McKinnon the chance at a sort of prosthetic memory, McKinnon tells Wired that she's rejected social media completely. Via Wired:
The life-logging impulse is lost on McKinnon. Once, she decided to keep a journal to see if she could preserve her memories. “I stopped doing that after two or three days,” she says. “If I get so obsessed with capturing every moment because I’m afraid of losing the memory, I’m never going to experience those moments.” And what else, really, does she have?
She does use email, which sometimes serves as a useful reference. But she doesn’t make a special effort to log her experiences there. And she doesn’t use social media. No Pinterest. No Instagram. She had a Facebook account, but she quit using it. It didn’t interest her.
Once, McKinnon tells Wired, she borrowed a friend's video camera to film a cruise with her husband Caribbean, but she hated the feeling that she was living for capturing the moment instead of the moment itself.
McKinnon wonders what humanity would lose if one day technology made us all a little more like her. "The human experience would change, but would it be a plus?" she asks. "Or a minus? Or—just a change?”
When I scroll through my log of iPhone photos, staring at images that I can't quite connect to any lived reality, it's hard not to feel like there is a profound lesson to be taken from McKinnon—freed from the shackles of constantly curating her life's narrative, McKinnon, unlike the rest of us, is able to simply enjoy her life.