Are we rewriting our emotion-memories with fact-memories?

Some of our most personal moments are being captured for history, and without our conscious thought. An event in my household this week struck me as a particularly poignant case.

Yesterday, my wife’s mother passed away, in her own home, with a nurse at her side. She lived 500 miles away, but she and my wife had been together a few days earlier, and her mother passing relatively soon after her visit was not wholly unexpected. When the nurse noticed a change in her mother’s condition, she called my wife and rested the phone by her mother’s ear. My wife spoke to her about spirituality, personal memories, and love for about half an hour. After some silence, the nurse came on the phone to say that she had passed peacefully.

In this personal and intimate moment, technology played an interesting role.

Unknown to my wife at the time, her cell phone recorded her final conversation with her mother.

Earlier in the week, my wife was experimenting with a recording app on her phone. When she received the nurse’s call, she forgot it was active. When the call ended, the recording app let her know that the last 33 minutes with mother had been digitized and saved.

One of life’s most personal moments is captured for posterity. A key point is that it was completely non-self-conscious: the technology was just ‘on’, always recording, and didn’t influence the real life that was happening.

Now she has a 33-minute recording that includes the moment of passing. I can’t imagine anything more personal, more real, more profound. And what does one do with it? Share it with her family? Yes. Keep it for the grand-kids? Maybe. Ever listen to it again? No… maybe…?

I’m struck by the comparison to the Samsung commercial for Gear VR which showed a real-time feed of a birth between a mother on one side of Australia to a father across the continent. It was amazing, but different in that the tech in the room had to be significant and invasive.


What happens when Augmented Reality glasses, or body-cams, or dash-cams, or who-knows-what-cams capture more of these significant, most-personal moments, non-intrusively and continuously? So I wonder:

How will it affect our memories of the event?

These memories are so influenced by emotion: reality is often blurred through our emotional experience. But now these emotions are likely to be re-written by the facts, just the facts. They say that the brain re-writes the memory each time it is replayed in mind. Do we want only facts to remain in mind from these emotional moments, losing these first-person emotion-memories?


In speaking with a friend involved in the venture capital side of Japanese VR, I learned that there is an expectation there that cinematic VR capture will be huge. Weddings, vacations, and daily life will be captured. In a wedding, the bride creates an emotion-memory while standing beside her fiancé, looking into his eyes from her unique perspective. But when she sees the VR video created from a camera off to the side, her first-person perspective will be changed. She will be removed from the truly special first-person experience with all its unique emotions. And when she looks at the video a few times, her first-person emotion-memory will be weakened, replaced with the memory of the VR experience and its unyielding factual detail, perhaps drilled deeper through repetition.

The implications of always-on recording are huge. There are many forces moving us that direction.

For example, a while ago I was reading about a problem with determining the facts related to disputed sexual encounters on campuses. A huge increase in sexual assault allegations has led to campus adjudicators deciding between conflicting he-said/she-said testimony; testimony often impaired by alcohol. The resulting decision implications are drastic: a crime may be ignored leaving a perpetrator at large, or an innocent young man’s college education, and therefore career, may be ruined. Since consent can be withdrawn at any time, no prior agreements can hold. There is only one way to be sure: video recording. So another intensely personal moment, perhaps even the loss of one’s virginity, may be captured on tape in order to remove the ambiguity. The emotion-memory of the event could well be replaced by the fact-memory on tape.

Technology, no doubt, will enhance our fact-memories. If kept hidden away, ten years from now, that VR wedding recording will flood us with emotion. But viewings well before that period will happen.

At what cost to our emotion-memories?

This is not to bemoan the value of facts, which have their place, such as the use of police body-cams. But VR feels different than the traditional 2D media. We are not as likely to easily replace our real memories with flat photos, although that also does happen over time. The emotional depth of VR, once again, may surprise us.

My immediate question is: what should we do with a recording of the last earthly moments of a beloved mother? We’re not sure.

[8/22/2015 Edits: my wife corrected a few minor details, length of call, etc…. and a few phrases for clarity.]