When we ask people to recall pivotal moments in history, such as the moon landings, we often ask, 'where were you when you heard?'
When we ask people to recall pivotal moments in history, such as the moon landings, we often ask, 'where were you when you heard?' © REUTERS

When my mind wanders these days, I’ve noticed that it wanders to odd places — namely, far-off hotel rooms. Zurich, late last summer: the hotel was on the wrong side of the tracks but the room had big windows on two walls. Dallas, a few years back: the hotel had a huge atrium with a model railway; I ironed my shirt while listening to a podcast about the late-blooming composer Leoš Janáček. Rancho Mirage, January: the room was a sunny stroll away from reception; the pool looked tempting beside the desert palms, but was cold and full of leaves.

Why, of all things, would my mind jump to distant hotels? Not because anything much happened there: sadly, I must confess never to having done much of interest in a hotel room. Evidently, my memory is working in curious ways.

Last spring, I returned from the holiday of a lifetime in Japan, and reflected on the richness of the memories it had generated. Time flew by while I was there, but in hindsight 10 days somewhere vividly new had produced more memories than 10 weeks back home.

I likened the effect to the compression of a film. Instead of storing each frame separately, video compression algorithms will start with the first frame of a scene and then store a series of “diffs” — changes from one frame to the next. A slow, contemplative movie with long scenes and fixed cameras can be compressed more than a fast-moving action flick.

Similarly, a week full of new experiences will seem longer in retrospect. A month of repeating the same routine might seem endless, but will be barely a blip in the memory: the “diffs” are not significant enough for the brain to bother with.

After months of working from home, I now realise that there was something incomplete about this account. New experiences are indeed important for planting a rich crop of memories. But, by itself, that is not enough. A new physical space seems to be important if our brains are to pay attention.

The Covid-19 lockdown, after all, was full of new experiences. Some were grim: I lost a friend to the disease; I smashed my face up in an accident; we had to wear masks and avoid physical contact and worry about where the next roll of toilet paper was coming from. Some were more positive: the discovery of new pleasures, the honing of new skills, the overcoming of new challenges.

But I doubt I am alone in finding that my memory of the lockdown months is rather thin. No matter how many new people or old friends you talk to on Zoom or Skype, they all start to smear together because the physical context is monotonous: the conversations take place while one sits in the same chair, in the same room, staring at the same computer screen.

The psychologist Barbara Tversky, author of Mind in Motion, argues that our minds are built on a foundation of cognition about place, space and movement. That creeps into our language with phrases such as “built on a foundation” and “creeps into”. Our brains started by helping us process our surroundings and the threats and opportunities they presented. Abstract thinking is an adaptation of those basic spatial capacities.

This may be why not all novelty is created alike. Our brains seem to record a new place with a particular vividness. There was nothing especially novel about ironing a shirt while listening to a podcast, and nothing especially intriguing about that Dallas hotel room. But it was a physical space in which I had never been before. That was enough to set my brain taking notes.

Even when a moment has nothing to do with place and everything to do with intellectual or emotional novelty, place still registers. When I think about important intellectual or emotional junctures in my life — from the first time I understood Arrow’s impossibility theorem to the first time I met my wife-to-be — even then, those memories are tied to a physical location.

No wonder champion mnemonists often use the “method of loci” or the “memory palace” technique, memorising long lists of abstract information by picturing vivid images in well-defined spaces, such as the rooms of a childhood home.

I’ve come to realise with renewed force the value of a pre-Covid habit: seeking out new places in which to read and to write, even something as simple as a new café or a new library. Fresher ideas and clearer memories come when one works somewhere different: in a new place, the mind is more alert.

This may be why, when we ask people to recall pivotal moments in history such as the fall of the Berlin Wall or the 9/11 terror attacks in Manhattan, we ask “where were you when you heard?”

Covid-19 may be as significant an episode as any, but it will not trigger the same sharp memories. Where were you during the pandemic? At home. For months. And without a physical change of scene, even new experiences all start to seem the same.

“You need to get out more,” someone once admonished me. She was right. These days, we all do.


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