Photo: eldar nurkovic/Shutterstock

On the Neuroscience of Travel Memories

by Corey Breier Jul 22, 2013

I woke up to the gag-inducing smell of nicotine drifting in through the open door of my tiny rented campervan.

Groggy, I rolled over and looked outside hopefully, but was met with the same morning scene as I had been the past two days: a panoramic volcanic landscape stretching off into the dreary mists that hung over Skaftafell National Park, punctuated only by the cigarette smoke emitted by my surly Australian travelmate. I groaned and tried to snuggle back into my sleeping bag — the southern Icelandic weather was as bleak as ever. Judging off my stay so far, the land of fire and ice looked a lot more like the land of poor visibility and intermittent precipitation.

I knew exactly how the coming day was going to play out, because it was how the past two had transpired. I wouldn’t be able to see more than 50 feet; my impromptu travelmate was going to grumble incessantly about American politics, pop music ‘these days,’ or Apple’s supposedly misbegotten success; and the new flavor of cold I had picked up from the doleful surroundings would continue to be a source of torment. I had been looking forward to my week in Iceland for months, but as I dejectedly slid on my raincoat that morning, I realized the majority of this trans-Atlantic pitstop was going to be something I wanted to forget, rather than treasure.

Luckily for me, I’m not going to remember any of that in a few months.

Focus on maximizing opportunities that can give you those magical moments.

Memory is a curious thing — it has a habit of expunging linear sequences in favor of fleeting moments of strong emotion. These are the so-called ‘flashbulb’ memories that stick in your brain better than any phrase written 100 times on a blackboard. You may not be in a classroom anymore, but your brain works the same.

The staying power of flashbulb memories doesn’t require any overpriced tourist tchotchke — they remain etched in your brain as firmly as the day they were formed without the need of a physical souvenir. They are the instants that define who we are, and they often line up with times of potent emotional experience or removal from your comfort zone. Given that traveling invariably takes you out of your comfort zone (unless you never leave the hotel pool), far more flashbulb memories are imprinted during our time on the road than time spent on the couch.

I’m sure you can think of such moments in your recent life, whether or not you have traveled of late. You won’t forget them easily — and when you think back to a certain time period, they will be the first to arise. They can be anything — the time you were rear-ended in traffic, the taste of ice cream from an outing with your nephew, or an ecstatic moment on a dance floor surrounded by friends. It’s elementary once you consider which moments have stuck with you from your past…but this principle is easy to forget going forward.

Do you remember what you had for breakfast last week? Unless it was your first plate of string hoppers in Sri Lanka, probably not. So don’t fret about your breakfast tomorrow. Structure your travels (and life) with the knowledge that you’re not going to remember every little excruciating detail. Focus on maximizing opportunities that can give you those magical moments, but remember they’ll be outnumbered by hours that are anything but.

I have little doubt that months from now, I will remember all those cramped campervan hours in Iceland as simply one slightly less happy memory filed next to the several magical moments that it enabled. In fact, as I settled into my tiny metal corner on the final night of the campervan trip, I felt successful despite the day being as grey as ever.

I was bored out of my mind amidst miles of repetitious landscape in the western fjords when the Australian stopped the car in the middle of a black-sand plain for a smoke break. I made up my mind not to continue until I’d caught one of the stray baby sheep wandering around on the periphery of the herd. The task proved to be harder than I thought, as the babies were far more nimble than I, but after ten minutes of puffing hopelessly in figure-8s, I took my chance, dove for the closest lamb, and nabbed him!

Covered in black sand and smelling of sheep musk, I crammed myself back into the van elated. It was only one of a dozen or so happy moments from the week, vastly outnumbered by grey uncomfortable ones, yet it stands out in my mind with far more clarity.

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