The Power of Photos
Recently, I bought a large capacity network-attached storage device to finally pull down all the photos I scattered throughout the past 15 years to one device, and one device only (which will be hooked up with some sort of backup soon). And there’s something I realized only now, after spending hours browsing through these photos:
A photo, to a random person, is basically a snapshot of something and that’s about it. But a photo you took (or were actively part of), is a key to a story, hidden all the way back in your brain. Today, we know that our brain is capable of storying an insane amount of data (estimates value it at around 2.5 petabytes, that’s 2.5 million gigabytes (more here). Information is stored through a very different mechanism than regular disk storage devices accomplish this. Best example to illustrate this: Somebody tells you about something that happened many years ago. And while the first words do not remind you of anything at all, this might change with the blink of an eye as the person keeps telling the story, you jump up with crazy enthusiasm because you suddenly remember all the details! The link has been activated again.
So, today I realized that browsing through a full-year worth of photos (in a quick scroll-down auto-preview kind of manner), must be insane fireworks for your brain. I remember where each and every photo was taken, I remember the day, I remember little details and time of the year, how I felt and so much more. And then, next photo, different scene. And it keeps going and going and your brain quickly unlocks story after story.
While this is fascinating all by itself, I went a bit further and actually had to go (and still do) through 15 years worth of photos. They started with really really poor scans of actual photos, then terrible first digital cameras (640x480 resolution, BMP) and proceeded to the first snapshot-style pocket cameras (batteries lasted some 50 photos) and 100 MB compact flash cards. Then videos start to appear more often, about a decade ago the first videos emerge in my folders and they are terribly poor quality. They get better, the recording devices change from A/V-grabbed tape recorders hooked up to the computer to small pocket camera 30 second clips, to the first digital handheld-camera clips, back to incredibly poor mobile phone camera clips (less than 320x240 resolutions), over to the first iPhone hacks to enable poor (I mean poor!!) video recording on the first generation, second generation, official iPhone video recording. The first DSLR photos show up with awesome quality, only to be trumped by even better DSLR photos, and eventually DSLR video (insane quality) and semi-daily iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4 and finally iPhone 4S video.
The complexity, quality and frequency of recordings has almost exponentially increased up to a point where I can go back to any day you like within the past 3 years and find out EXACTLY what I was up to. Where I was eating, traveling, living and who I was with. There are gaps, which are also very likely huge gaps in my memory and will mostly, eventually, all fade away. But for those days with photos, I have the key. They might be up in my brain, hidden and stored away, but one tiny click on a file and my brain does magic only to return a full recall of that particular day in my life.
It’s purely insane. Integrating the camera (an insanely high-quality audio, photo and video recording device) into our mobile phones has unlocked an unbelievable cheat-mode to the inner workings of our brain, previously completely unavailable in such detail.
When people talk about the power of photos, having a camera in your pocket and what not, I used to acknowledge it as tech-blabla, as something that’s just a normal progression of technology-enabled life. But if you have a rainy afternoon or weekend at your disposal sometime soon, try to go back to photos some 5, 7 or possibly 10 years back. And let your brain digest them. It’s a very magical and completely touching experience.
I mostly get sad looking through old photos though, because they all portray a life I lived where every day seemed worthwhile taking a photo. It’s just another melancholic fallacy, but boy is it a powerful one. There is so much information, you can literally scroll through a full year of your life in less than 5 minutes and re-experience a dramatic amount of emotions.
So maybe, as the story goes, when you die, when all these flashbacks of your life are passing by, maybe this is what is happening after all when our brain finally unloads and shuts down. We have the information, we have it all locked and stored away in our brain – we just never had a good way to instant-access all of it. And while photos are just one of many keys able to fetch and activate the memory again, I believe they represent the most powerful and touching method to remember the past.
It’s fascinating to see how quickly years pass, and how much of it is actually condensed (or compressed) down to tiny bits of moments once our brain archives the years, one after the other. 2006? Yeah that was when this happened, and in 2004, that thing happened. That’s all we put on the label of past years, but photos allow you to extract and basically de-compress all the memories of a particular year, a month, a week, a day, sometimes even a very special hour or moment of your life.
Back to the archive, to discover more weird memories, like the day Mark Zuckerberg noticed me. Sort of.