Is the immediate playback of events changing how children create memories?
Looking at a video right after an event can overlay and alter the actual memory of the experience, experts say.
The night of the elementary school talent show, we came home to celebrate with ice cream when my mother took out her iPhone to show a video she’d taken of my 10-year-old daughter’s performance. My daughter had played Ed Sheeran’s Perfect on the piano by ear and sung along. Despite her nerves, she got out there in the middle of the stage in a new dress with scattered sequins and sang her best, bowing to an audience of clapping parents before she walked offstage — an expression of relief and pride on her face.
When I saw my mother’s finger hovering over “play” on her phone, my daughter leaning over her shoulder, I stopped her: “You know what... Let’s just let her enjoy the moment.”
I’ve seen the way my daughter’s facial expression changes, her eyes squint slightly, and her neck pulls her head back just a little when she watches videos of herself. I knew that in my daughter’s mind she’d felt like a rock star up there, and that seeing the video might surprise her and change the way she remembered the experience. It’s not that her performance wasn’t good – just that it might be slightly different on video from the way she experienced it, the way we all feel when we hear ourselves on a recording and say, “Wait – that’s what I sound like?”
I wanted to keep her experience sacred for at least a little bit longer. I wanted to keep it her experience.
It turns out that my hesitancy has a genuine scientific basis. Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard whose books include The Seven Sins Of Memory: How The Mind Forgets And Remembers, told me, “We know from research that reactivating an experience after it occurs can have large effects on subsequent memory for that experience, and depending on what elements of an experience are reactivated, can even change the original memory.”
Many studies have been done on how a person taking a photograph reinforces or reshapes their memory, but what about our children – the subject of our constant documentation? Does seeing themselves in the third person change or even falsify their memories? Instead of remembering the experience of singing up there on the stage looking out at the audience from her own eyes, my daughter’s memory becomes entangled with the videographer’s perspective from the audience looking up at the stage.
Elizabeth Loftus, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies memory, explained: “Experiencing gives you a ‘first’ person perspective. You see others while you act. Watching gives you a ‘third’ person perspective. You learn something about how others see you. I’d say this would ‘add’ to the memory... which in a sense is a kind of reshaping.”
Alixandra Barasch, a professor at New York University who studies how new technology is changing the nature of our experience, pointed out that my daughter was immersed in her experience and attended to the details that were most central. Looking at the video, she said, is “definitely shifting the perspective to details about the way she looked, and also other details – maybe someone else’s reaction to her.” Not only could the change in perspective increase self-presentation anxiety but, “according to research, it could also dampen emotional aspects of the experience,” Barasch said.
“Emotion is often aroused when we have heightened moments of meaning,” said Dr Daniel Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author, most recently, of Aware.
What would have happened if I let my daughter watch the video right after her experience? According to Siegel she would have quickly moved from being a participant to being a more distant observer.
“A half-hour after the show, instead of being able to languish and enjoy the rich bodily sensations and emotions that accompany autobiographical experience and memory and narrative, she’s now being thrust into the observer autobiographical experience because she’s watching herself on the screen,” he said.
I have no videos of my elementary school performances, ballet recitals or birthday mornings from my early ’80s childhood. Videos were not sent via phone for instant viewing. Even film had to be developed when I was growing up; vacation pictures would be viewed a week or so after the experience. We got to linger in the experience for a while, from our own perspective, not the camera’s. Even though many of my childhood memories are hazy, they’re mine.
Oliver Sacks wrote in his posthumous book of essays, The River Of Consciousness, “There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains... our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves – the stories we continually recategorise and refine.” Given this innate fallibility, it’s not necessarily a negative to let technology reinforce our memories, but it does seem worth noting how the immediacy of it may change the story for our children.
A writing teacher once told me that if I began passages in my essays with, “I remember” as the introduction to an experience, I was “stepping on the story” instead of just letting the story be. Showing our children the photos and video we’ve taken instantly after they’ve lived an experience is doing something very similar – making it a memory before it’s had time to settle into their consciousness, and in essence, “stepping on their story”.
“The timing of it really matters,” said Siegel. “I would wait maybe a day or two and then let that be a wonderful stimulant to allow people to have a shared view of the event.” In a society at least claiming to strive for mindfulness, photographs and video have a supporting role to play, but the immediate playback of a moment, a milestone or even our dinner plates also has the potential to rob our moments of their ephemeral power.
It’s been a week since my daughter’s performance. “I can’t believe it’s over!” she says twirling around the kitchen. She knows I have a video of the performance, but, interestingly enough, she hasn’t asked to see it, and I haven’t volunteered it. I think I’ll let us both remember it just as it was that night for now: Raw and unfiltered, and from our own perspectives, perfect.
By Julia Cho © The New York Times