A while back, at the beginning of 2015, I was flipping through a Nature magazine and ran into a paper entitled, “A global strategy for road building”*. It was one of those papers that sounds interesting, so I ripped it out of the magazine, filed it, and then promptly forgot about it.

Determined not to use the file of “interesting papers to read” on my desktop as a pre-garbage, I push myself to open it every once in a while. I finally got around to reading the whole article on roads last January. It made me think of a nice link between road building and memory building. I wrote a bit about it back then, but then that got filed away too and now, many months later, on an “empty Tuesday” (November 1st is a holiday in Spain), I face the idea again. It’s too good to go directly in the garbage.

The first part of the idea in the paper is that roads are built to access valuable resources (timber, minerals, oil), to enable trade and to distribute energy. The second is that new roads almost always stimulate the buildling of secondary and tertiary roads. Finally, the third aspect is that roads can generate social and economic benefits, although they may incur environmental costs. Thus, a perfect road may be possible, with the greatest benefit at the lowest cost. Can that work for memories?

Substitute mind pathways

I like these general papers since it’s so easy to substitute the main subject for any other word and see what happens. So, I substituted “road” for “memory” and thought I could apply it to my narrative photos. The new paper is then something like the title of this blog, “A global strategy for memory building using lifelogging photos”.

I’m interested in improving or making new memories. As I’ve mentioned in other blogs, I’ve found that my own memory of things is too fallible, especially regarding emotions. Since I have a rather large database of life-logging photos (over 1 million), I decided to try to go road building and see what happened.

How did I do it?

I chose a day of the month, the 24th, for no good reason, and a fairly random hour, 12h19, also for no good reason, and then collected all the photos that I had taken during that minute (since April 2014), and placed them into a file. I ended up with 31 photos, three of which were basically too dark or fuzzy to discern anything, so really I got n=28 photos. For a 14 second video of those photos see here.

My first impulse was to classify them, so I did. The easiest was to select those taken outside (a building) vs. inside, about 50/50. Then some were inside a car, which is kind of outside and inside. So I finally divided them into photos taken inside my house, outside on the street, in different modes of transport (car, bus, train) and at some destination (usually inside another building).

After having started this exercise via the “road building article”, I found it rather funny that a lot of the photos taken at 12h19 over the years were of me, literally, “on the road”, either walking, driving or sitting somewhere near a road, i.e., going places (Figure 1).


Figure 1. The precentage of photos taken at 12h19 over 31 months according to their location.

Regarding memory mapping, I figured it would be neat to ask myself how I felt during each photo, my main feeling now, looking backward. It was nothing too complex, I just wrote down what kind of vibe I got from looking at each photo, from negative, to neutral to a general positive or very positive feeling. The differences were not huge, but overall the destinations (outside the home) were more positive, followed by home itself and times on the street (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Overall feelings (negative, neutral and positive) while looking at each photo, according to where they were taken. Each dot is one score, and some photos had two positive scores (i.e., very positive).

What did I learn?

I think that my past, or at least my life-logging record of my past, is a valuable resource. To access that resource I need to make some roads, pathways through the vegetation to open up the possibility of recalling. While I was building, I also felt that secondary lines of thought began to appear, linking things in the past with now, recognizing similar situations.

There is definitely a cost to this activity, however, it takes time (on the range of hours) away from other things happening in the present, but the benefits seem interesting. Apart from learning that around 12h19 I spend a lot of time “on the road”, I also found it interesting that home seems to be a more neutral place, not too positive or negative, as opposed to destinations, which end up being quite positive overall. So potentially, when using life-logging photos to cheer you up, or to strengthen faded memories, it may be better to concentrate on destinations, those places outside your normal GPS range. I’ll have to try it again at other times during the day, to see if the same thing happens. but my gut feeling is that if we work to get somewhere (travel, etc.), our feelings at the destination are rarely neutral.

*Laurance et al., Nature, Sept 11, 2014, Volume 513