Lion in Kruger Park South Africa Travel is first about experience, but then, very quickly, it’s about memories.  If you peek in any traveler’s bag, you’ll find the evidence of some habit designed to capture memories, whether it’s a camera, a video camera, a journal, a sketchbook,  a collection of souvenirs, ephemera for scrapbooks.

This is all as it should be, because memories are a very serious business. I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week since I just re-read  Context is Everything: the Nature of Memory, by Susan Engel.  She writes that our memories are the basic building blocks of our sense of self –when we share them with others, it’s an act of intimacy – it’s because we want them to know who we are. The book doesn’t mention travel at all, but since travel is one of the few common activities that’s almost explicitly about “making memories”, it’s interesting to think about how memory works in travel and its aftermath.

For instance, there’s one cliché definition of hell that is the harrowing experience of someone showing you their vacation pictures, endlessly, unceasingly, in minute detail.  Thinking about it through the lens of memory research, what’s almost universally a dreadful experience is a bit poignant. The returning vacationer wants to share an essential bit of their deepest self (their memories, their soul!), the people who are watching would rather not, thanks so much.

But memory research is also instructive to the would-be sharer of vacation photos, because what we’re really all interested in emotional content: not the facts, but the feelings. Not what happened on your trip, precisely but what you thought and felt at the time. And the most important question of it all: how did the trip change you?

In fact, when you’re nowhere near whatever your memory aid of choice is,  when you just allow your mind to cast back over your travels, that’s probably what will come to mind first: the memories that changed the way you see the world and your place in it,  that represented some kind of a turning point in your life. That, and the memories that represent something that you feel is important about yourself.  (These are usually memories that will cast the most favorable light upon you, by the way. ) And another thing about our travel memories: while there’s an idea, and a rather noble one at that, that travelers “get outside themselves” and focus more on the rest of the world, our memories won’t likely reflect that. We tend to make our role more central in all events that we experience, we’re the star of our own show – it’s a typical memory distortion, and Engel uses the fabulous term “totalitarian ego” to explain it.

stretchy lions

At any rate, this suggests that perhaps we needn’t spend so much time during our travels trying to preserve memories. We’ve all seen the people who travel around with the camera or video camera permanently affixed to their faces. I’ve been that person, in fact.  I went on a safari to  Kruger National Park in South Africa a couple of years ago, armed with both a camera and  video camera.  When I think about it now, my most vivid memories aren’t in broad daylight – oh, I remember a lot of it, but my daytime memories tend to be…smaller, since I was looking at the giraffes and elephants and zebras through an LCD screen. The urge to photograph what I was seeing was completely irresistible to me. But when the sun went down, I took a few shots and then I put my cameras away. The Land Rover caught up with a pride of young male lions, and for an hour or so we rolled along with them, their grayish shapes in and out of the spotlight – it’s a moment I can conjure up in all of its dimensions, right this moment, without much effort.

(Oh, I’ve yet to determine what important thing that memory says about my Self. Maybe you’ll find it comforting as I do to know that this is common: we often have vivid memories first and figure out their meaning later, kind of like a dream.)

Speaking of dreams, there is a way to make it more likely that you’ll retain your travel memories without the aid of a camera or paper.  It’s a fact that memories are more easily recalled when we recall them often —  so the more often we revisit a memory the easier time we’ll have doing that again in the future. It’s old advice, but sound: if you want to remember what happened to you during the day, tell yourself the story of your day before you go to sleep at night.

There’s another way to solidify your memories: share them with others, your travel companions, loved ones back home, whether it’s by phone, email or post card, Twitter or Facebook. You’ll be recalling the memory to share it, of course, and that will affix it better in your mind. But there’s something else you should know first: memories don’t exist in a mental filing cabinet, to be brought out whole, shared and then put away again. Instead, the way our minds work is closer to imagination – we reconstruct our memories each time we remember them.  And when we do this in a socially, the memory is influenced by who we’re telling the story to, why we’re telling it, what we’ve decided it means, how it makes us look. Each time you share a memory, each instance flavors the memory. “Once shared, a memory is changed forever,”  Engel writes.

In one way that’s quite beautiful – our memories grow and change as we do. In another way, it’s distressing.  What can we trust if not our own minds? I suppose the answer is our photos, travel journals and scrapbooks – immutable over time, immune to social forces and ultimately, not subject to revision by our totalitarian egos.