For eight years now, I’ve been traveling to various nature spots around the globe with a great group of folks. Thirteen of us met on a polar bear tour in 2002, and since then, our “Travel Group” (with the exception of a few people we’ve lost over the years and some we’ve added) has made five more trips together. We have a tradition when we get back home: within a month or two after our return, we get together at someone’s home for a “Picture Party,” a time when we can look over each other’s photos, eat, laugh, and relive some of our favorite trip memories.
But I’ve noticed something a bit strange when it comes to the memory part. It’s a feeling that I’m losing mine. Here’s how it usually goes: One of my traveling companions, such as Carlyn, might say, “Remember when our guide, Dennis, showed us and talked about the peridotite in Newfoundland?” Well, actually, no, I don’t. Or then there’s my friend Joan who recently said, “Remember when guide Elise called us ‘chattering corvids’ on the boat in British Columbia?” Well, Joan, although I didn’t admit it at the time (and you’re hearing it first here!), no I don’t remember that, either. And then, from another corner of the room, I hear the dreaded sentence that begins with “remember when we saw that … .” And, you guessed it: no, I probably don’t.
I wonder if you have asked yourself, too: If we go on the same tour with the same people, do we ever really take the same trip?
Are you talking to me?
I suppose some of what I’m missing that other people see and hear could be chalked up to daydreaming; which when I’m in the presence of great natural beauty or in front of a particularly impressive wildlife representative, I tend to do a lot of. Or perhaps, I tell myself, I just wasn’t in the vicinity when certain things were uttered. But my not remembering what other people do happens with such frequency that I believe something else could be at work here.
I wonder if much like the kid with earbuds stringing down the sides of his face during a parental lecture, we only tune into the things that are positive for us, relate to the picture of ourselves and the world that we already have in our minds, and we filter out the rest. So while I might be standing right next to you on the ship or at the trailhead and we physically are hearing and seeing the same things, I’ll only remember those bits that I like and that are already in my life.
The little research we have on how memories are made and maintained shows that what we remember from trips is usually good — and that’s true for even the most mediocre of experiences. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, was recently quoted as saying, “That trip to Rome during which you waited in endless lines, broke your camera, and argued with your spouse will typically be airbrushed with rosy recollection.” Supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Professor Lyubomirsky is conducting research on the possibility of permanently increasing happiness. She says “Trips aren’t all perfect, but we remember them as perfect.”
The same trip, only different
When you make the big decision to go somewhere new, the thing you hope most to bring home is a memory that will stay with you forever. You want to recall what you learned and what inspired you, not how much you spent in dollars or the small aggravations you endured during the flight there, for example.
So maybe I don’t remember the corvids comment, because it didn’t strike my funny bone the way it did Joan’s. Or maybe while guide Dennis was talking about peridotite, I was thinking about the life I’d have if I lived in Newfoundland.
I have to admit that at our Picture Parties, I have as much fun remembering the trip as I did going on it. Part of that is due to my articulate, hilarious, and wonderful traveling companions, but the other part is that by then, I’ve recast the actual, factual trip into the one I want to remember. And that makes our post-tour shindigs even better. Because we’re not sharing just one trip at our get-togethers: we’re sharing thirteen different ones.
Have you ever talked with someone who went on the same trip as you did but had totally different memories of it? Have you ever been surprised by the things someone else recalled about a travel experience that you did not?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,