Can We Keep Time?

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Written By Pinang Driod

It can be tough to face our own mortality. Keeping diaries, posting to social media, and taking photos are all tools that can help to minimize the discomfort that comes with realizing we have limited time on Earth. But how exactly does documenting our lives impact how we live and remember them?

In this episode, diarist and author Sarah Manguso reflects on the benefits and limitations of keeping track of time, and Charan Ranganath, a professor of psychology and researcher at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience, discusses what research reveals about how memories work and how we can better keep time.

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Becca Rashid: You know, Ian, whenever someone asks me to get in their BeReal, I’m always like, What? What is that? What’s happening? What are we doing? Why are we doing this? Do we need to do this?

I am not very social media–savvy. So they have to give me a break.

Ian Bogost: Becca, you’re talking about the app, right? This app that asks people to post a photo from both the front and rear cameras on their phone, and like you get a coordinated message in your friend group to take your BeReal photos?

Rashid: Yes, and I’ve heard that everyone on the app takes a photo at the same moment in time?

Bogost: At the same time. Yeah, that’s how I understand it.

Rashid: I’m curious if that’s, like, across time zones. I don’t know; very interesting.

Bogost: Yeah, I think it is. I think it’s like synchronized photos of everything, and then they vanish again.

Rashid: Normally, we’re like sitting on my couch or eating lunch. Like something super mundane.

Bogost: Mmm hmm. Yeah. I mean, I think that’s part of the idea—to show that most of the time your life is ordinary.

Rashid: Right.


Rashid: Welcome to How to Keep Time. I’m Becca Rashid, co-host and producer of the show.

Bogost: And I’m Ian Bogost, co-host and contributing writer at The Atlantic.


Bogost: Becca, do you remember time capsules?

Rashid: Yes. I didn’t really live in that era, but yes, I’ve heard of them.

Bogost: That’s what I was wondering. It used to be kind of a thing. You would, uh, collect a bunch of photos and scraps of paper and letters and whatever you could find and bury it in the yard for folks a hundred years later to dig up and investigate.

Rashid: Right.

Bogost: We used to assemble these archives, these time capsules for the distant future. And some of them are cosmic—you know, in 1977, America sent human memories, almost time capsule–like memories, into deep space on Voyager. And now they’re out there in the galaxy somewhere.

Rashid: Mmm. Right.

Bogost: But as a kid in the ’80s, it felt like time capsules were everywhere.

Like you’d trip over people burying capsules in their schoolyards or churchyards.

Rashid: Really?

Bogost: Yeah. I remember I went to visit the site of the Oppenheimer atomic bomb test as a kid. And they were putting a time capsule in the ground. And, like, you know, the stuff that goes into it—it’s a different time horizon than your camera roll.

Rashid: You yourself don’t have access to the records of your own life; you’re trying to save for someone else.

Bogost: Yeah; it’s not for you. It’s for some future generation to see the ordinariness of your present life. That’s quite a bit different than taking smartphone photos that you’ll probably never look at again, or posting ones on BeReal that will then disappear a day later. So it does kind of seem like apps these days, they really orient us toward the present, and less so toward the past and the future.

Rashid: Interesting you say that. I feel like—I wonder if it really orients us toward the present, or if just a lot more of our present time is now used to document things we want to look back on in the future. And how are we even distinguishing between present, past, and future time anymore?

Like don’t all those BeReal photos that you take begin to blur together and become this, you know, unmanageable sort of trove of content? I get the kind of longer-term projects that people do—like parents taking photos of children every day as they grow up to document their change over time.

But all the stuff in between just feels like a culture around needing to capture our time in some way, to measure it, and just kind of make sense of the movement of time in our lives.

Bogost: Yeah. I mean, there are so many apps these days to record and measure, like, just about everything. You know: the number of steps you took, or stairs you climbed, your weekly screen-time report, the UPS packages you received, period-tracker apps that measure women’s bodily rhythms, how much exercise you did yesterday or didn’t do. All of that stuff.

Rashid: Right.

Bogost: It used to be weird to record stuff like that. Justin Hall, who was sort of heralded as one of the first bloggers when he started publishing his personal diary on a website in 1994—it was strange. Like, he was posting personal things. And people thought that was unusual, and they were maybe even uncomfortable with it. Or an early internet entrepreneur named Josh Harris famously streamed his whole life—him and his girlfriend—in 2000, right after the turn of the century. And that was weird too. You know, it was strange, and it felt dirty in a way; you were seeing into someone else’s life. And it was also weird when the so-called quantified-self movement arose a few years after

Rashid: What exactly was that?

Bogost: Right; so that was a name at the time for this new movement driven by technologists largely. You know, to record and track anything that you could record and track. The step-counting and all that kind of stuff started then too.

Rashid: Wow.

Bogost: And so all of that had to be invented, and it has only come to feel natural because it’s been adopted. Which is notable that so many people were like, Okay, yeah, we’ll do that.

Rashid: Interesting. And that’s clearly just a huge cultural shift, right, about what feels too personal to share.

Bogost: Or even too personal to keep.

Rashid: Right. Like, I’m thinking about my first blog as like a middle-schooler on Tumblr. I had essentially just embarrassing garbage on there that I didn’t have to worry about anyone seeing; it was really just a documentation of my favorite, you know, music, fashion trends. But now a lot of online content I see, or documentation in general, feels a lot more curated in a way.

Bogost: You know, Becca, in my generation, people did record stuff. People used to keep, you know, diaries. But that was, you know, less filtered—partly because it was so private.

Rashid: Mm hmm.

Bogost: I mean, this was a private thing that people kept for nobody, kind of—just for themselves. But then slowly, over decades, we moved that activity online. And that not only made it normal to share it, but also normal to try to hold on to all that stuff, to document and keep it in a different way. Like, not everyone would have a diary back in the day. And now kind of everyone does, even if they don’t call it that.


Rashid: I’ve always wondered if this sort of compulsive documentation—these habits we have around writing down what happens at any moment in time—is actually about the fear of losing time, and our impulse to, you know, want to control it.

Sarah Manguso: I felt this kind of maybe pathological anxiety that if I lost those memories, if I lost the memory of the emotional weather of the day, I would be losing some essential part of myself, this essential part of my life.

Rashid: So Ian, Sarah Manguso’s kept a diary since she was about 14, documenting her daily life detail by detail.

Manguso: Oh, I write in my bed, on my laptop. I write on my sofa. I was unable to stop ruminating on the smallest things that happened to me until I wrote them down. At which point I could then be free of this kind of obsessive, you know, thinking and rethinking.

Rashid: Ian, Sarah’s also the author of many nonfiction books, and she’s a professor of creative writing at Antioch University. Her practice of writing everything down in this diary made me wonder. How are all the ways that we play with time, and the ways that we try to preserve it by documenting—how much is that really helping us hold on? And I know we want to keep time, but … can we?


Rashid: Can you describe the style of a typical entry in your diary?

Manguso: In the beginning, in the very beginning, when I was in my teens, the entries were very emotionally overwrought. It really was just sort of your, you know, toxic waste dump of teenage feelings. Which I think, you know, is a fairly universal experience for teenage diarists.

Rashid: Yes.

Manguso: Over the years, I began writing in present tense; I stopped using the pronoun I. I log the date: the year, month, and day. So there are some formal habits that have become somewhat fixed over the years.

Rashid: You know, a lot of diarists, or people who journal to the extent that you do, are sought out later in life and later in history for their reflections on a specific moment in history or a moment in time.

Manguso: Oh, no; nobody would care. Like, really. [Laughter.] There’s no historical moment captured in my diary. My heart sinks when I think of the prospect of having to, like, represent the past to the people of the future because, you know, it’s just gonna be like: “Here’s what I was thinking about, and this person I was obsessed with.” And yeah; it’s all gonna be really embarrassing if we’re looking for historical import.


Rashid: Can you explain a bit about how this process of recording every day changed when you became a mom, or perhaps when you were pregnant with your son?

Manguso: Yes. Soon after my son was born, I underwent a period of sleep loss. And because your working memory is so impaired by sleep loss, I sort of lost the sense of linear time in the way that it had felt before.

Once I had the ability to sort of think about abstractions again—to think about anything except, you know, Keep the kid alive, keep the self alive—I realized I don’t need the diary. You know, it’s neither necessary nor sufficient.

Rashid: So, Ian, in our pursuit of keeping time and trying to figure that out, I wonder how gaps impact our memories? Like with Sarah—she wasn’t able to document every single thing she had planned to. When her son was young, she had to step away from her diary. And I think there are often gaps between the way we record things and how we want to remember them.

You know, we might just take a photo at lunch with friends, but we really want to remember how deep the conversation was across the group. I wonder if there is some shorthand way to practice making those kinds of memories stick?

Bogost: Yeah—totally, Becca. I mean, the memories we keep are related to the way that we hold on to them. If we want to learn how to keep time, we need to know something about how memory works, so that we can use it effectively.

Charan Ranganath: We are not designed to remember everything. Our memory is supposed to be selective, right? So we often kick ourselves for not being able to remember everything that we ever experienced, but I think that expectation is wrong.

Bogost: Becca, I talked to Charan Ranganath, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Davis. And Charan taught me that memories are not just records—like stored pages of a diary, pictures, phone, or whatever. But the way that we interact with our memories also changes them, and us.


Ranganath: I think we don’t appreciate both the opportunities that memory gives us for the future and the way it already does affect us without even necessarily knowing it.

Bogost: How do we hold on to memories in our brains?

Ranganath: So, memories themselves come about through connections between neurons that change when we experience something. Literally, there’s a physical change that takes place in our brains after we have all of these experiences. And our brains are constantly reshaping themselves over time.

Now, some things that we experience are more significant than others, and they release these chemicals called neuromodulators. So it could be when we’re under stress, or it could be when we’re surprised, or it could be when we’re experiencing desire or some other kind of motivation. Those are all things that release these chemicals, and those allow certain memories to persist at those moments.

And so by default, we will have predominantly better memory for these things that are more memorable, essentially. The things that we should remember; the things that our brain biologically responds to in a way because it should be significant. Does that make sense?

Bogost: Well, it does. But it makes me want to ask—what does it mean for something to be more memorable?

Ranganath: Yeah, so in terms of what the brain is trying to do, it’s trying to find something that is not consistent with what we would have already known before. That’s a big part of it, right? So, in other words, if you have constraints on how much that you can remember, why remember the things that are already consistent with what you knew? You just need to remember the things that are different in some way. So, that distinctiveness is a big part of what makes something memorable.

And then, of course, there’s the other things—like the ways in which an experience grabs on to some of our motivational systems in the brain, which also are associated with emotions. So things that make us scared, or things that make us feel, like I said, desire or hunger. But even curiosity, too; it’s another one that we found drives these changes in the brain.

Bogost: Hmm. You know, we often—as individuals in the world—want to hold on to time. We don’t want to let it go. We want to keep a kind of closeness with events that happened to us: whether they’re important, or whether they’re kind of unimportant, but delightful. Like, we want to hold on to time, almost.

Is there a strategy for that? For, you know, going, Oh, okay; this thing is happening to me or just happened. I want to keep that close to me. How should I go about doing it?

Ranganath: That’s something that I’ve been thinking a lot about. How to not only remember but to curate my memories—taking advantage of the selectivity. And so what I try to do is focus on the things that I want to remember and creating experiences that are going to be more memorable.

So sometimes that involves a change in our context, just to put us in a new state of mind and give us something that’s a little different than our routine. So just to give you an example of the opposite of that: During the pandemic, when we were all locked down, everyone had lost that ability to change their context very much.

And we were stuck in front of screens all day. And so I asked students in my class, “Do you feel like the days are passing by faster, slower, or the same while you’re locked down?” And about 95 percent of the people in the class said that they felt like the days were passing by more slowly. So then I said, “Do you feel like the weeks are passing by faster or more slowly?” And about 80 percent of them said the weeks were actually passing by faster.

So what I think it was is: Without that change in context, people felt like their days were just going on forever. But then when you reflect on longer timescales, you say to yourself, Hey, what happened in the past week that was memorable? And the fewer things that you can pull up, the more it feels like time was just passing by and it’s slipping through your fingers, right?

Bogost: Given that most of us, when we think about memory, think of it as being about the past—what does it mean to construe memory as an activity of the present or the future instead?

Ranganath: So I’ve spent much of my career studying what’s called episodic memory, which is our ability to remember events from the past.

Bogost: Okay.

Ranganath: But a lot of my recent work has been, really, about how we use information in episodic memory. And so what I mean by that is: Let’s say you’re watching a movie or you’re listening to a story. How do you use what we’ve learned in memory to be able to understand what’s going on in those stories or movies? How do we predict it?

Or if we’re navigating—let’s say, you’re trying to figure out your way from the hotel to this place where you have a conference. How do you use memory to actively figure out where you are and navigate to where you want to go? So, in other words, moving from this perspective of memories being about the past to memory being about the present and the future.


Rashid: So Ian, if Charan is saying that to do a better job at holding on to memories when we’re experiencing something new or novel, for me, with my iPhone camera roll, it’s like a low stakes—kind of “Here’s a beautiful flower I saw on my walk” or whatever—and I’m not at least consciously trying to preserve a memory or hold on to it.

Bogost: Oh no, for sure. I mean, but also think about how much easier it’s become, Becca, to do that with your phone?

Rashid: Yeah; of course.

Bogost: I mean, it’s definitely a habit, and I don’t mean that in a negative way; it’s just a thing that we do. And it’s a thing that people didn’t used to do—like, we recorded things, but we didn’t do so obsessively. Because in part you couldn’t; it was not possible.

Rashid: Right.

Bogost: Photographs were expensive and time-consuming to develop on film. And, like, writing out memories longhand in diaries is, you know, irritating, and you get a hand cramp or whatever. I’m also not sure if people are really reviewing how they change with time.

Rashid: Really?

Bogost: Or are they? Like, I don’t know. Are they—are we—hoarding all of these materials?

Rashid: Hmm … I mean, that’s a good point. I’ve seen interesting data from the University of Illinois on how people who looked at themselves more often during video calls then reported worse moods—people on Zoom calls. And so maybe we simultaneously want a heightened sense of awareness and reject it.

Bogost: Yeah; being in your life and recording your life—they feel like they’re at odds, and you have to move back and forth between them in a way.

Rashid: Totally.

Bogost: Yeah; I’m really upset, though, that you brought the “yourself on video” thing. [Laughter.] Because I’ve really been noticing this lately.

I use Zoom and Microsoft Teams—both of those software-package video calls?

Rashid: Okay.

Bogost: And Zoom has this filter that, like, smooths out your skin. And it makes me look great.

Rashid: Are you sure that’s true? Is that true? [Laughing.]

Bogost: I didn’t realize it until I started using Teams—which doesn’t have it. Or at least I don’t know how to turn it on, if it does. So like, I’ll go into Microsoft Teams, and I’m like, Oh my—who is this old guy looking at me?

Rashid: I didn’t know that.

Bogost: Yeah; there’s a button. I think it says “Enhance your appearance” or something.

Rashid: Oh, wow. I thought that’s just what I looked like. Great. Now I’ll get on Teams and humble myself.

Bogost: I’m sure that you look okay. I don’t. I have to have my appearance enhanced.

Rashid: Yeah; I mean, that’s just a filter on work calls. And then I think about all the other things on social media that make you into a supermodel, and all these apps that show you what you’ll look like 40 years into the future.

Bogost: Yes; same kind of thing, yeah.

Rashid: And I’ve always stayed away from those apps, because I feel like if I saw myself, you know, 50 years into the future, I would feel like a stranger to myself, right?


Bogost: Right!

Rashid: There’s such interesting psychological research about the barriers to connecting with that future version of ourselves. Because for many of us, our identities change with time; we can’t really emotionally connect to the needs of our future self. You know, which makes us probably worse long-term planners. And saving for your future self is like saving money for a stranger. You don’t know that person. You don’t know their needs.

Bogost: Sure; I mean, you can’t. Right, Becca?

Rashid: Right.

Bogost: Behavioral scientists—like, economists, whatever—they sometimes present this problem you’re describing as, like, just a simple one. Just a problem of forward planning. Just save for the future. Just, you know, care for your health, and go to the doctor.

Um, but it’s really hard. And it is actually a longstanding puzzle in human culture and our conception of self. Philosophers have a different name for this problem. They call it “identity over time.” And it’s just not obvious that you or me or anything is the same thing that it once was when it moves into the future.

I guess what I’m saying is: It’s not just a problem of planning or being foolish, and kind of overcoming our foolhardiness through habits. Although it might be that, too. But a real, legitimate philosophical question—quandary—is at work here.

Rashid: Right. And given your larger philosophical point here, it does bring up a question for me. Like, what should I be holding on to and recording? And is it even helpful in understanding how I’m changing over time? Or is all this record-keeping via social media and diary writing just affirming some evidence that we exist?


Manguso: I think it is possible that social media might feel exactly the way that my diary feels to me. Which is that—until you post it, it doesn’t feel like it’s done yet. Or until you post something, you don’t exist. Or maybe until like X-number of people see the post, it hasn’t really finished happening yet. And, you know, for me, obviously the audience thing is not the thing that scratches my itch. But simply the expression of it in language is what makes me feel better.

Rashid: Interesting. When you read back over your diary, does it feel like you’re reading your own words, or like you’re looking into someone else’s life?

Manguso: Oh, wow. That’s interesting. Well, if I go far back enough, occasionally I want to see if something happened the way that I remember. And so I’ll go back enough years that I don’t remember what it was like to write that year.

And it doesn’t feel like somebody else’s life. You know, it just feels—I don’t know how old you are—but it just feels like, Oh yeah, this was one of my previous iterations. This is, you know, me, like, 2.0. And now I’m, you know, 9.4.


Rashid: Ian, if I’m ever in a place where I don’t have Wi-Fi or something, I’m just kind of scrolling back in my camera roll for hours. [Chuckle.] And it doesn’t provoke any kind of intense emotion or kind of nostalgia of like, Oh wow, this amazing trip I took three years ago. It’s just kind of a photo in my phone, almost the same way I would access a memory in my mind and just pull it up.

Bogost: Yeah; it definitely feels like the tools for that kind of revisitation of memory are, like, really underdeveloped. Like, sometimes I’ll get a push notification from Facebook. I really don’t use Facebook, but it’s still on my phone, I guess. And it says, “You have memories to look back on today.”

Um, you know, like, what? I mean, my adult kids were in town for the holidays. And at one point, Facebook sent a push that said, “You have memories to look back on,” and showed me a picture of my son. And I was like, “Facebook, he’s in the literal house.”

Rashid: Like, back off.

Bogost: Like back off, you know? Like, “Come on; I’m doing it. I’m doing the thing.” But then, you know, if it knew where he was, then that would be creepy.

So, who knows what to do? I mean, technology has definitely helped us keep more time through memories, but it’s also done it in a haphazard way that maybe doesn’t have the highest-quality result.

Rashid: And I think Charan’s advice about being selective about which memories we keep is so tough in this era.

Bogost: It’s really hard.

Rashid: When all the memories in our mind also have some kind of physical record online to actually pull us, you know, back into that moment. That photo of you and your son is, like, from who knows when.

Bogost: Right; it’s all munged together, for sure. You know, maybe somewhere in your house you have like a shoebox of print photos, and you just threw them all in. But now, it’s like everything that you’ve ever thought or seen or done is in one giant shoebox in your phone, and it’s hard to know how to make sense of any of it.


Bogost: How do you know when you’re doing the right thing—when you’re keeping the right amount, when you’ve overdone it, or when you’ve underdone it—from the perspective of a healthy memory life?

Ranganath: Yeah. I guess what I’d say: So there are people, for instance, who have highly superior autobiographical memory. They’re not necessarily happier than people who don’t.

They have these detailed recollections of, you know, what they ate for lunch, let’s say nine months ago. But they don’t benefit from that, right? So I think this is a very good question, where you have to ask yourself what’s useful.

First of all, I think you’re documenting too much if there’s things that you document that you don’t go back to.

Bogost: Interesting!

Ranganath: Right there, you realize that you’re hoarding memories, right? And you don’t want to be a hoarder. And so, like, that’s your first indicator—if I took a hundred photos of my trip and I never went back to them, maybe I took too many photos. Now sometimes, you don’t know what’s interesting until you look back. But I think the problem is that if you take too many photos, I can guarantee you, you’ll never look back.

Bogost: Huh. So where does the impulse come from, to hoard memories like that? To hold on to everything—to create a bunch of records, or to keep a bunch of scraps, or take a bunch of photographs? Is it about feeling? Is it a desire to be in control of time and its passage?

Ranganath: Yeah, absolutely. I think we’re all afraid of the idea that we will lose our memories, ’cause it’s so embedded in our narratives of who we are. And so there’s an existential fear there. But also I’m mindful of the fact that I’m in the fourth quarter of life, and so I’m asking myself, “What am I doing with my time right now?”

And if I look back and I say, “Boy, I’ve spent the last week just sitting in front of a screen, and I have nothing memorable from those experiences”—that’s very frightening to me. Because I’d like to have lived a life that’s more memorable than that.

So sometimes, it’s not about hoarding every moment as much as being able to value the experiences you’ve had. Because if you have one experience that is valuable that you could draw upon later on from the past week, that’s a whole lot better than mindlessly documenting everything you’ve ever done for the last week, right? And that’s going to be more personally meaningful to you, I think, in terms of anchoring you in where you’re going in your journey in life.


Bogost: You know, Becca, my mother always kept everything. Like, scrapbooks of stuff. You know, like participation ribbons I got from the third-grade busking competition, whatever it was. I don’t even know, you know.

Rashid: Do you feel like you’re as connected to those items as she is? Like, does seeing you know, the third-grade soccer trophy or whatever make you nostalgic for that time?

Bogost: Absolutely not.

Rashid: Oh. [Chuckle.]

Bogost: And I’ve always had this kind of weird feeling about all that scrapbook stuff. Like, are those things important to me? Am I making a mistake? It actually makes me think of—there was this article I commissioned for The Atlantic a number of years ago that made the case for why you should go ahead and throw your children’s art away. Like, all the drawings or whatever the kids make.

Rashid: Oh, interesting.

Bogost: Yeah. Cause you know if you have kids, I mean, he’s produced all this art all the time, and it all feels very tender and important in the moment. But then it piles up, and it’s not very good anyway; you know, it’s children’s art. [Laughter.] And so, like, you know, what should you do with it?

Rashid: My mom would be so upset to hear that. She just found some old art of mine that I made in middle school and, like, relaminated it at Staples. This is, like, material from 20 years ago. And that’s, like, one poster from my childhood. [Laughter.] That helps her, you know, remember who I was as a 12-year-old. But if she had an iPhone, God knows what she would do.

Bogost: Yeah. I totally get it. I mean, Mary Townsend—who’s the philosopher who wrote this “throw your kids’ art” piece I mentioned—what she recommended is to keep a few. You know, be selective.

Rashid: Mmm.

Bogost: Keep a few. Because saving something that you’ll never look at again—kind of in the way that Charan is explaining—if you keep all of it, that actually will erode those memories more than it will amplify them.

Rashid: And I wonder if part of the ease and kind of joy of digital memories is that they are kind of immaterial, and they don’t have to take up physical space in your house?

Bogost: No, for sure.

Rashid: But I wonder if they play less of a role in our memory, for those same reasons? I don’t know. With that poster my mom kept—looking at it, holding it—I not only have the memory of that thing I made, but who I was at the time. I can kind of remember, like, painting on that poster.

Bogost: Mmmhmm.

Rashid: Why I chose the colors I did. And just my general context of me in that period of time is stored better, in a way, in that physical copy.

Bogost: I mean, it makes sense. But then, at the same time, now that your smartphone is such a major part of your life—an extension of yourself, really—when you create those memories, you may be creating them in concert with that device.

Rashid: Right.

Bogost: And so that could make the digital things seem just as real, if not more real and striking, than the physical ones in the way you’re just describing.

Rashid: Do you think it preserves the context of when you captured that memory in the same way?

Bogost: Yeah. That’s it. I think that it does.

Rashid: Hmm.

Bogost: We should be careful not to think of these digitally created contexts as somehow lesser than taking what, like a film photo? Or, you know, jotting something down on paper? Those were technologies, too, and we had a different and maybe similar relationship to the apparatuses. Something that was taking part in the construction of the memory then, too.


Bogost: So, Charan, I wonder if you can tell me: How does the contextual nature of memory impact our general experience of the world? And I’m especially interested in our experience of the passage of time.

Ranganath: Context is central. And something that we’ve studied a lot in my lab is the idea that context comes in as part of the memory itself. And so, I don’t know if you’ve had this experience of hearing a song on the radio, and just all of a sudden a memory that you didn’t think was there popped into your head. Or times where, for me, it’s like if I traveled to India. Which I don’t do very frequently—but when I have, I immediately get all of these memories of seeing my relatives in India that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to access when I’m here. Just the sights, the smells, the sounds are really enough to drive those experiences of remembering.

And so context is super powerful: both in terms of determining what we remember and also determining the things that we can’t access.

Bogost: That’s interesting. So are you suggesting that, you know, if there’s a memory that I want to hold on to, or I want to amplify, that kind of changing the context in which I remember it is one tool to do so?

Ranganath: Absolutely. And that doesn’t just have to be a change in place. It can also be a state of mind. You know, I think our brains naturally want to generate predictions about how things are supposed to be, and what that means is it reduces the load of what we have to learn and remember.

And if you want to have something, though, that’s memorable and distinctive, you have to do the opposite. You have to ask yourself: What’s different about this experience that I can hold on to later?

Bogost: Hmm.

Ranganath: And you can take advantage of that, too, by documenting what’s different. So when I go on holidays, I like to take pictures of things that are very unusual, that will bring me back to the moment.

And sometimes those aren’t actual landmarks. They could be even things like moments when we’re out eating at a restaurant or something, and I catch my daughter laughing while she’s got a drink in her hand or something. And those kinds of moments are anchors that allow me to go back and not just see the picture, but re-experience the event.

Bogost: Humans have had technologies of documentation for a long time. Whether those are photographs or paintings or paper records, books. How have those changes in the way that we do recordkeeping, as a human culture—what impact have they had on our sort of cognitive relationship with time?

Ranganath: I can’t give a precise scientific answer to that question, but what I can say is, based on what we know, that our memories are intertwined with our social world, right? And so, a lot of the documentation that you’re talking about is not just for the purpose of recording, but communicating.

Bogost: Hmm.

Ranganath: And that act of communicating our experiences actually changes how we remember. There’s great research showing that parents, for instance, that engage with children about memory and meaningfully talk to them about their interpretation of their past—actually, [those] children are much less likely to have mental illness later on.

Bogost: Wow.

Ranganath: And so, this ability to engage with our past actually informs our narratives of our life. And they inform our sense of who we are. If we take that into the realm of time, the more of a rich life narrative we can construct, the more we feel that time was well spent.

Bogost: Wow.

Ranganath: And I think even the painful experiences in our life, if we engage in ways of documenting—with art, for instance, or with journaling—the more we can engage with even those painful memories, and approach it from a different perspective. Not one of staying stuck in the past, but rather, How can I take that past and use it as a learning experience, or as a way of understanding the world differently and, essentially, growing from it? I think that will give you, not just the sense that you had that time, but you used that time well.


Rashid: You know, Ian, I think in making this podcast with you, I’ve realized that my time has never really been separate from me. And I viewed it as separate from me for so much of my life.

Bogost: Sure. It can feel like you’re swimming in time—or maybe against it. But it’s more like, without the current you don’t even exist.

Rashid: Right. And now, I’m at least trying to move with that current in a different way, I guess, without constantly thinking about another way that I could have used my time and that has brought me some sense of relief.

Bogost: I also came into this podcast feeling just ill at ease about time. Where did it go? And how can I tame it moving forward?

And you know, I understood that memory and personal records and stuff like that, that seemed to be related to time—like, of course they are! But both Sarah and Charan have helped me understand how our drive to document things—whether with diaries or photos or just memories in your head—those are kind of symptoms of that desire to “hold on to” our experience of time. You know, to keep time.

Rashid: And, like I was saying, I feel like I have a complicated relationship with what exactly to hold on to. I want to collect as much of the emotional experience as possible. And I don’t know if that’s a reasonable expectation—to be able to hold on to the joy of every moment exactly as it happened the first time. But I think the drive to keep everything—whether on social media, or in shoeboxes, or camera rolls, or whatever—convinces us that we can really hold on to that moment, exactly as it happened.

Bogost: Yeah; I keep coming back to Charan’s use of the word “hoarding” to describe this kind of behavior. It really cuts to the chase, doesn’t it?

Rashid: Yeah.

Bogost: We live in this “pics or it didn’t happen” world.

Rashid: [Laughing.] Right.

Bogost: And it makes me feel like the time I spend on whatever I’m doing has been turned almost into an evidentiary process. Like, unless I can prove to you that I ate this meal or visited this place, like, I didn’t even do it. It’s really pretty perverse, when you think about it.

Rashid: But those choices are still up to you—what we do with all those images in the cloud. It’s an emotional choice, I think. I assume we want to hold on to the best memories, and get rid of all the bad times in our minds and probably in our camera rolls as well. [Laughter.] Just trying to keep everything, hold on to all of it, and just sort of document incessantly, won’t stop the current of time.

Bogost: Right, Becca. We have all these tools that are almost making memories for us before we’re ready. We’re forgetting that the selectivity of memory is what we still have agency over. You can choose what to hold on to.

Rashid: You can choose.

Bogost: —what to keep.

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