Surprises and the structure of external lifelogging memory


(screenshot of Dublin lifelog meetup at zalando Rami Albatal)

I was recently invited to give a talk at the Dublin lifelogging meetup, by Rami Albatal and Cathal Gurrin. The focus was on memory and how it can be affected by life logging. To prepare for the talk I tried a little “experimento” a month before, to see what I most often forget about and how my “external memories” remind me of things.

I used to select 10 random days from last year (16/01, 23/01, 01/05, 13/05, 27/06, 03/07, 16/07, 19/07, 26/07, 19/11). Then, for each of those days I browsed through: 1. my log book notes, 2. narrative photos, 3. files used on my computer that day, 4. emails recevied and sent and, 5. my 750 words.

I didn’t do this all on the same day, but was careful to distribute it over the week and do it at the same time of day. So it went like this, at 6h15 on Monday January 23rd (2017), I reviewed my notebooks from the first 5 random days, and just wrote down things (in another log book) about what I found interesting. Then at 6h15 on Tuesday January 24th I reviewed my narrative photos, also from the first five random days. Then on Wednesday I reviewed my files, Thursday my emails and Friday my 750 words. The following week (starting Monday January 30th) I followed the same schedule for the next 5 random days. After all of this, I then counted all the words I wrote while reviewing those 10 random days from 2016 (Figure 1), categorized by external memory type. Bascially the “files” were the least inspiring and did not stimulate a lot of writing.



Figure 1. Total number of words written while reviewing life-log data from different external memories, over 10 random days in 2016.

While reviewing, I noticed something that I’ve often felt but never quantified: my degree of surprise while reviewing life-log type data. There are also levels of surprise. An average surprise would be, ok, I took the bus to work that day (as usual), and went to my office (as usual) and there was a student waiting for me (not too usual, but not too surprising). Then there are medium surprises like, oh yeah, that was the day I saw that women with the really funny shoes, had forgotten about that and never really thought about it or seen it again. And then there are “wow” surprises, as in, I cannot really believe what I am reading or seeing, it cannot be true, something is out of joint, it must be a mistake and I need some sort of corroborating evidence. An example would be, I can see a narrative photo of my daughter in my office, but I cannot for the life of me recall how that happened (I know my office, I know my daughter but they hardly ever mix).

So I went through my text and wrote down the more medium to “wow” surprises categorized by external memory source (Figure 2).



Figure 2. Total number of medium and “wow” surprises while reviewing life-log data from different external memories, over 10 random days in 2016.

Then, thinking more about these surprises I found that there were five basic types, those related to:

1. People, as mentioned about my daughter or finding an email by someone you completely forgot about.

2. Readings; completely forgot I read the short story in the New Yorker entitled The Fugitive, by TC Boyle, even though I wrote about it in my 750 words.

3. Videos; this refers to movies, series and TV. One example was I completely forgot about seeing the news coverage about the shooting in Normandy last year.

4. Planning; this relates to recalling how much time I spent thinking and planning about things the past. For example, I completely forgot that last June I spent quite a bit of time thinking about going/not going to a specific conference planned for the following October.

5. Sequence; this refers to sequences of events in a day. For example, I clearly recall having sampled some fish in the lab on a specific day, but completely forgot that I went to the doctor’s office that same afternoon and got some important lab results.

Finally, the last step was to go through and see how these surprises were divided up among the external memories (Figure 3). Surprisingly for me, more “people surprises” came from reading old emails, as opposed to say, narrative photos. The surprises about sequence were from the logbook and narrative photos (which makes sense since they are the only ones that cover the whole day). Suprises regarding videos, were from the logbook, narrative photos and the 750 words. And finally, surprises about planning were not as common but mostly from files and 750 words.


Figure 3. Total number of medium and “wow” surprises while reviewing life-log data from different external memories, over 10 random days in 2016.

So, it appears that my “external memories” can give me surprises, and they do have some structure, which is fairly consistent. Perhaps some can be used to recall certain things, jog certain types of memories. For example, if I want to recall people from last year, or make some sort of contact map, the best place to start would be old emails. If I want to test my memory about sequences of events in the past, a look at narrative photos. If I want to calculate how much time I spent planning different projects, or worrying, a more diary type of entry like 750 words would be good. Cool, n’est-ce pas?.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s