When I try to recall what happened on a given day, using my working memory, the process seems to go as follows: I give a name to the day (usually a day of the week), and then wonder where I was, who I was with, and what I did in general. The results are generally less than impressive. If it was recent, say three days ago, I may recall two to five locations, four to eight people and maybe five to ten activities (I’ve tried to do it several times and the numbers vary a bit).
I know, forgetting is essential, lest we all turn into Borges’ character “Funes the memorious“, who, after falling off a horse, remembered everything that ever happened to him, and then became a hermit and died of pulmonary congestion. But I’m always curious about what I forget, and how that may affect my current sense of self. What do my life-logging photos tell me about that?
After having used a life-logging camera every day for over two years now (taking one picture every 30 seconds), I think that I can describe some habits of forgetting. On a mundane level, I forget that I was with certain people, went to certain places and most of all, did specific things (Figure 1). Of course there are people and people and places and places, but the details are often fuzzy and sequences get rearranged. On a higher level, I also forget ideas, emotions and small pleasures, but thankfully the photos help bring them back, for a while.
Figure 1. Life-logging photos from May 22, 2016 (Sunday), with different moments (every three rows), at home, shopping, having lunch and walking outside in the park.
Reviewing a life-log of photos
To “relive” my life log, I sit down at my computer and flip through about 1200 photos of one day, one by one. Instead of straining my working memory, I become a passive reader of a story with a clear beginning and ending, with concise visual information. The worst thing that can happen is to find out that some of the pages in the book are gone (i.e., the camera battery died or the lens was covered up by my jacket lapel). The best things are the surprises.
If I had a special Muse type gadget on my head while reviewing the photos, my brain waves would probably start jumping around when I run into unexpected events; one or two photos about something that I’ve completely forgotten, as I also mentioned in my talk last year at the Quantified Self conference in Amsterdam. They are usually brief and pleasant encounters with people that I know, and somehow make me very happy.
More recently, I’ve also noticed two other things while “reviewing” (Figure 2). I get a better idea about the bombardment of media around me (TV, advertisements, random images and many things I read). But I’m also amazed about how I can completely I forget them all just a day later. No wonder effective advertising has to be everywhere and repeated incessantly, we forget about it immediately!
Thirdly, I’ve noticed that certain photos in specific situations stimulate immediate physical reactions, like when I see a plate of food (boy, I felt full after that meal) or a sequence at the supermarket (boy, I was getting impatient in the fruit section).
Figure 2. When trying to recall the recent past, my working memory is quite poor, while the life-logging photos provide much more info and new information not available to my un-aided brain.
Usefulness of life-logs, the science and the art
In a recent paper (Evaluating access mechanisms for multimodal representations of lifelogs), Zhengwei Qiu underlines that life-logging photos should be used to help you find things, or to be more efficient in some way. But I’m not sure that most people wearing Narrative cameras are focused on that. What I wanted, when I started back in 2014, was something more similar to “The Re-live box” ), as described by T.C. Boyle (one of my favorite short story writers), a computer interface that you can turn on and use to relive parts of the past.
Qiu argues that it’s in our nature to organize the past into events, and that, as technology progresses, our lifelogs will be enriched with more and more stuff (GPS data; nearby “phones”, i.e., people you’re around; weather and physiological data). For him, lifelogging is about representing a set of temporally organized images and metadata for a specific use. Boyle, on the other hand, provides a romantic idea of being able to re-live the past, which (without spoiling his story too much), leads to an addiction.
As a bit of an amateur in this field, I find myself somewhere in between. I have some time to record things, some interest in quantifying, but not enough time to process ALL of it. I can also set myself specific goals, but as a hobby, not a job. Having a fairly accurate visual storyboard of my recent past is comforting, it may be quite useful one day, but I think that it’s a search for those lost pleasant feelings that I relish most.
Overall, I think I forget almost everything, which probably helps me to focus on the present. However, my life-logging exercises suggest that I preferentially forget the details, and confuse sequences of events. Memory is emotional, fragile and subject to change, but having a story board to refer to may help avoid misinterpretations and self-delusion. Maybe.