Still, most people Zhang asked didn’t feel like recording their day. Given a choice between writing about their day for five minutes or watching a talk show host interview an author for an equal amount of time, only 27 percent of people chose to document their day and only 28 percent of people—regardless of whether they chose to write or not—thought that they would care later about what they were doing that day. Three months later, 58 percent of people said they regretted choosing the talk show clip over journaling. They were bad at estimating how much they’d value the present once it became the past.
“They choose to forgo opportunities to document experiences in the present,” Zhang writes, “only to find themselves wanting to retrieve those records in the future.”
In Swann’s Way, what is it that Proust’s narrator recounts about his younger years? It is the tea and madeleines he has with his mother; it is the goodnight kiss he receives as he lay in bed; it is the strolls he takes along the Champs-Elysées. In the end it is his snacks, his goodnight kisses, and his walks—not his dreams of trips to Venice or to the church in fictional Balbec—that he cherishes most deeply.
It may just be that it’s hard to understand what a moment means, in the context of a life, while it’s happening. “I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realizes an emotion at the time,” Virginia Woolf wrote. “It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”
Fortunately, our brains are wired to help us remember certain events that later take on great significance. Participants in a new study published in Nature viewed photos of animals and of tools. After the participants had seen all of the images multiple times, the researchers began administering mild electric shocks when participants viewed a certain category of photos (tools or animals). It was a Pavlovian exercise that made the participants better able to remember the category of images linked with a shock.
But what is most interesting is that participants given a shock while viewing photos of tools at a later time were in fact better able to remember all tool images from earlier, even before shocks were administered. The same went for those viewing the photos of animals. That’s to say, participants recalled a mundane memory (a picture of a tool or an animal) because it later became significant (when shocks were administered). This suggests that the brain can retroactively improve our memory of mundane events so long as they become significant later.
As incredible as this finding is, “significant events” do not exclusively comprise a human life. A car trip with my family is not deeply significant at the time, and seems unlikely to become so in the future. The time capsules that the participants in Zhang’s study created would probably never hold deep significance. Yet the participants still showed great interest in what they had been posting on Facebook or thinking about their roommate. Mundane or not, these memories were still part of their identities.