Memory Design: Recreating Past Travels

by Keith Savage · 8 comments

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I’ve spent a lot of time over the last month thinking about the nature of traveling, the process, and why so many people love to travel. It’s been on my mind as I plot a new course for my future, one that would involve travel as its core pursuit. I found it odd (and somewhat disconcerting) that I had trouble identifying my specific motivation to travel. Was it the experience of new sensations? Was it the feeling of foreignness? You’d think after a decade of fairly constant trips abroad that I’d be able to articulate this pretty easily. Alas, I have treated travel as something of a compulsion, doing it without understanding of the impulse.

A recent tweet turned me on to an article Jonah Lehrer wrote for McSweeney’s in which he describes the creative benefits of displacement. It seems the experience of new cultures and their routines have far-ranging benefits for our ability to see the familiar in new ways. I was astounded by the article, and yet, at the same time, it made perfect sense. Mentally flipping back to the ends of my last few trips, I did feel freer, more open; was this the effect of loosened jangles of neurons in my head? Down the rabbit hole I went and when I climbed back out I had broken down travel into three phases: conception, experience, memory. I’ll briefly talk about conception and experience, since there’s plenty of information about these two in different guises, and get more in-depth with memory.


This is the time period starting when you conceive of the trip idea until you actually arrive at your destination. Conception is well-represented by the thriving guidebook industry and trip-planning websites galore. Many people–me included–plan trips for the fun of it, stretching out the conception phase for years! An over-abundance of time spent in this phase can detract from the experience of the trip, however, as you’re too focused on ensuring the actual trip adheres to the plan you’ve created. This is all too common, and it wasn’t something I realized until I started writing this post. Perhaps it’s best if we let our brains build structures organically as we experience them, instead of having to tear down a preconception first.


This is what you’ve been waiting for all that time: when the wheels bounce on the tarmac; stepping off the bus in front of your B&B; the view across the valley with the smell of mountains in your nostrils. Yes, this is the travel drug in its purest, most addictive form. We are open and smiling. The highs overshadow the lows, no matter how numerous. The mundane is fresh. The routine an adventure. This phase is the combination of the plan (the conception) and randomness. As one goes up the other goes down. For extended travelers, there might be several conception phases nested within the overarching experience as they plan future legs of the trip.


You’ve returned home to find random cat puke spatters and your lawn looks like a wheat field. There’s a mountain of mail threatening to fracture your kitchen island, and you’ve got to go to work tomorrow. Ugh. By far the longest phase, memory effectively defines the trip after you return. I think many travelers take this period for granted and don’t actively do anything to remember their trip. Blogs, photographs, video, and personal journals contribute to how you perceive a previous trip, but I’ve yet to see any books like “How to Remember Your Vacation.” Maybe that seems so obvious that it’s offensive. But take a second and think back on your recent travels. What sticks out? Happy memories? Sad moments? Everything? Are they the memories you want? The fact is you might benefit from a bit of “house cleaning.”

The Power of Manual Design (aka Selective Remembrance)

Long-term memory is malleable and degrades over time. Other parts of memory stretch and distort as if viewed through fun-house mirrors. For an example, think about the stories in your family that seem to get more and more ridiculous with each retelling. Manual design is best started while experiencing the vacation. Capture it in whatever way suits you: photographs, your journal, blogging, a glass jar, etc. When you return home you’ll have plenty of material to sift through, and it’s here where you can insert your filter. There’s no right or wrong way to do this. If you want to remember the trip as the greatest experience of your life then you’d selectively choose photos and writings that produce this feeling. Perhaps these are the photos that make it into the coffee table book or the posts you put up on your blog. Over time, these selections will come to define the trip since you’ve given them prominence over the other data you collected. How often do you go back and look at all 1,800 photos? Probably not too often. You’ll probably look at a subset greater than 90% of the time, and the more frequently that you do this the more integrated your selections and your actual memory become.

Tips for Recreating Memories

  • Over-document. Take tons of photos and be prolific about your experiences. This gives you an arsenal of choices when picking the things you want to remember.
  • Physicality is important. Create a photo album or scrapbook. Hang selected pictures on the wall. Hell, write a book. The easier it is for you to re-experience your chosen memories, the stronger the connection between them and the trip.
  • Pair music with experience. Like smell, songs have the power to recall distant memories and places. Use this to your advantage by pressing play in the midst of something great. Whenever I hear David Gray’s Disappearing World, I recall with crystal clarity the night we pulled up, slightly drunk, to our B&B in Stromness.
  • Tell people about your trip. And do it using your filtered memories as talking points. Just don’t tell the same person twice. People don’t like that.

Memory design won’t interest everyone. Many people want to remember every last detail about the trip, whether fun, plain, or painful. Whatever you do, make sure your travels don’t blur with the passing of time. Disclaimer: I am neither a trained nor recreational neuroscientist. 🙂

Have you engaged in memory design, knowingly or otherwise? Are you intrigued by the idea? Tell me about it!

Drinking: Warre’s Otima 10 Year Tawny Port
Listening to: Mogwai

GiannisNo Gravatar January 22, 2010 at 5:36 AM

After have a journey in Tibet make my Memory ramp up to another level.
damn Love traveling a lot

KeithNo Gravatar January 13, 2010 at 9:53 AM

@floreta @Neeps: I have to agree. Whenever I return from trips there is a flush of creativity that I channel into writing and music production.

@Nomadic Chick: That image of Istanbul sounds amazing!

Nomadic ChickNo Gravatar January 9, 2010 at 3:51 PM

Great post Keith! I’ve used these methods subconsciously. Music is a big one for me which attaches to strong imagery. Looks Just Like the Sun (by Broken Social Scene) comes to mind when I think of Istanbul. I awoke early to catch the sun rise over the Bosphorus while the family St. Bernard, Poppy, nipped at my leg. All he desired was to play, after witnessing the first breath of the day I indulged him. 🙂

Thanks for the link and I strive to write great articles like this. 🙂
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Gypsy Tips – Earn Money While Traveling =-.

NeepsNo Gravatar January 7, 2010 at 7:18 AM

I think anthropologists would agree with Floreta’s comment. It’s certainly the best way to understand other peoples and cultures. Learning the language is second best as well as necessary for the first to be effective.

floretaNo Gravatar January 7, 2010 at 12:12 AM

interesting. i read an article on how living in a different country helps creativity. it’s a lot different than travel/tourism because you have to adapt to a new culture in a different way; living like locals.
.-= floreta´s last blog ..10 Days =-.

AdventureRobNo Gravatar January 6, 2010 at 7:55 PM

I’ve never thought of memory design before, but a blog certainly helps with it. I often forget details, especially important things like how much I paid to get in somewhere when someone asks about attractions to do. It’s more important than people realise I think.
.-= AdventureRob´s last blog ..Roads and Bush Fires =-.

NeepsNo Gravatar January 6, 2010 at 8:39 AM

I’m really enjoying this blog. Your writing is clear and insightful, and pleasant to read. Further, I can relate it to the Scotland trip of happy memory and it gives me a couple of ideas to consider. Keep it up. You have great writing skills.

KeithNo Gravatar January 6, 2010 at 12:58 PM

Thanks Neeps, glad you’re finding useful information 😉

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