Blended Memory – an overview

The aim of this post is to give a brief overview of the personal and theoretical background to my research. For a more detailed description of my thinking and the literature that informs it, please take a look at my eBook chapter:

When I bought my first digital camera (in 2005: I was a relatively late adopter), I sensed how easy it would be to get carried away and take hundreds upon thousands of photographs, particularly when surrounded by interesting landscapes, monuments and people. Storage was a little more restrictive than it is today and I sometimes found myself having to decide between buying more memory capacity or going through and deleting some of my photographs. This was an interesting economic conundrum of time (to sort through hundreds of photographs), money (to purchase another memory card) and value (of personal memory artefacts).

There were also times when I did not have my camera with me, or the battery had run flat, or it did not seem appropriate to take photographs. These occasions left conspicuous gaps in my collection, though later their absence would make them the very opposite: inconspicuous. I wondered what would happen to my memory of these events, since I had so many photographs of other times to look through.

The seemingly arbitrary parameters that determined the contents of my photograph collection seemed so powerful. Any number of things could lead to an occasion or detail being emphasised or overlooked. As technology continues to develop, the incentive to be selective about how many and which photos to take is decreased by a reduction in the cost of processing and storing data. People are taking more and more photographs,  sharing them instantly with friends and strangers across the world. What effects do these possibilities and practices have on our memories?

Of most immediate interest to me is that most elusive of memory systems: episodic memory. In 1972, psychologist Endel Tulving suggested two distinct categories relating to conscious or declarative memory: the semantic and episodic systems. While the facts and details of our experience can be stored in semantic memory, episodic memory is characterised by the subjective re-experiencing of an event and a sense of the time and place in which it happened. You can read more about the differences and functions of these systems in a previous post: The function of episodic memory and more about the feeling of personal connection to the past implicated in episodic memory in the post: The familiar feeling of remembering. The key points for my research are that:

  • episodic memory is essential for effective identity construction, goal systems and social functioning,
  • episodic memory is more prone to distortion and decay than semantic memory,
  • semantic memory can approximate episodic memory.


“cyborg” by Petras Gaglias (CC BY-SA 2.0)

External information has always been crucial to our memory process. For many centuries, we have distributed our knowledge by speaking to other people or writing our thoughts on paper. I use the term ‘blended memory’ to conceptualise the balance of internal (biological) and external (physical, digital or communal) memory.

Alongside helping us to remember our experiences, artefacts alter the view we have of ourselves and our world in often subtle yet significant ways. It seems that, just as our biological memories are prone to distortion, blended memory might be affected by memory bias. If we rely too heavily on digital artefacts, we  risk constraining our recollection around information that is stored in our external archives.

If we do not cognitively reconstruct some part of the original experience, distortion of our memory may be exacerbated as certain details, present in our artefacts, become exaggerated while other, absent details fade. In the case of photography, certain visual information may be reinforced at the expense of time, sound, smell, touch and taste. It is against this background that I seek to learn more about how photography trends affect the way we remember the events of our lives.

More detail on this theoretical background can be found in the forthcoming book chapter:

  • Fawns, T. (in press). Blended Memory: the Changing Balance of Technologically-mediated Semantic and Episodic Memory. In Memory and Meaning: Digital Differences. T. Fawns (Ed.) Inter-Disciplinary Press.

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