City life speeds up birdsong

The flip-book of your life

What would it be like to view your entire life in a few minutes? Last month, I wrote a Fast Company article that talks about Gordon Bell’s attempt to record everything that happens to him. One of the things he uses is a Microsoft SenseCam — an experimental, wearable camera that automatically snaps pictures of what you’re looking at, all day long. The question is, what do you do with all those zillions of pictures? Is there any way to use them to improve your memory or cognition?

Well, as I noted in the story, a couple of Irish and British scientists tried something interesting: At the end of each day, they’d download the day’s pictures and quickly scroll through them like a flashbook — viewing hundreds of snaps in a minute or so. They discovered that it would help “seal” the day’s events in your real, brain-based memory. (Indeed, it even drastically improved the everyday recall of a woman who suffers from ongoing amnesia.)

William Braine, a friend of mine, read my article and then had his own experience of this effect — inadvertantly. As he wrote in an instant message to me:

This weekend I transferred the contents of two older computers to my new iMac. When I imported the 3000-or-so photos from 1998-2006 into the new machine, they flashed by at about a quarter-second each. I got to see shots of our honeymoon, our apartment, a fat me, an ultrasound, a thin me, a newborn, a new house, a baby, another new house — with vacations and friends and family all speeding through … amazing.

Cool, eh? Since so many people now snap tons of pictures of their daily activities, I’d imagine there’s a good market for simple screensaver-like apps that intelligently sort your pictures and then whizz through them in different ways, to produce this sort of cognitive priming. And the most interesting effects aren’t necessarily about remembering things in a utilitarian way; they’re probably more about, as Bill noted above, the emotional aspect — different ways of re-experiencing and assessing your life.

Imagine being 60 years old, and having one psychologically significant picture taken from each month of an entire life’s archive. That’s 720 photos. Scroll them by at the speed that Bill experienced — four per second — and your life would flash by in three minutes. What in god’s name would that feel like? I figure whatever version of Flickr that exists 50 years from now will have this sort of capability, so I guess I’ll eventually find out.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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