Memories can be unreliable – better to focus on the present moment

Selfies distort one’s face. What we are looking at is not necessarily reality

Tourists taking selfies while on holiday in Dublin. It seems that if the camera is less than five feet away you begin to get distortions in your image

Tourists taking selfies while on holiday in Dublin. It seems that if the camera is less than five feet away you begin to get distortions in your image

 

While I was wandering through the Central Library in Vancouver a few months ago, my attention was captured by an information board which said the demand for cosmetic surgery had risen because of selfies. Selfies distort one’s face because of the distance and angle from which they are taken. What we are looking at, even when it’s a photo of ourselves, is not necessarily reality.

I was reminded of this when reading The Irish Times report of the Irish Young Philosopher Awards. One of the finalists, Ella Hales (14) from Cork Educate Together, explored the question “Am I the same person as I was in the past?”

“When I look at old photos of me I don’t relate to that person; I don’t know what they are thinking or feeling. I only know what I am feeling now,” she said.

The previous night I had glanced at a school photograph of myself and it struck me that I could feel no connection whatsoever to the boy in the picture. He seems very cheerful, but I have no idea what was going through his head. I think he was actually quite shy and that his shyness sometimes came out in sarcasm. But then again maybe not because memory is so often inaccurate.

We know from studies on witness statements, and other studies, that apparently clear memories have – in the US, for instance – sent innocent people to jail for a long time.

Inaccurate details

In our lives, events often happened in the general sort of way we recalled, but with inaccurate details.

If you think of almost any place that you’ve entered almost every day for years you will find that you have a sort of representative memory of, say, going to work each day. But you almost certainly cannot retrieve a separate memory for every single day that you walked in there. That’s a lot of “you” that has vanished.

If you are married, where did you propose? Where did you meet the person that you later married? It isn’t at all unheard of for partners (including me) to have different memories of these remarkably significant events.

People used to say, back in the day, that everyone could remember where they were when they heard John F Kennedy had been shot. Research on subsequent “flashbulb” events as they’re called shows there is a good chance that those who have that memory were somewhere else, doing something else, at the time.

All gone

Actually, we remember little if anything that happened to us before the age of about three. Arguably, this is the most intensive period in our life as we learn to navigate the world. Certainly for parents it’s the most intense period of their child’s life. But it’s all gone. We remember how to do things – walking, eating and so on – but the pictures and sounds have been left on the cutting-room floor as the brain remade various connections or, in another theory, just wasn’t able to keep track of the information flooding in.

I think what all this amounts to is the value of giving more time to awareness of the present moment and less time to a past that might not have happened or to a future that usually doesn’t happen the way we think it’s going to happen.

Back to selfies: Reuters quotes a US poll stating that “42 per cent of surgeons have seen patients who want procedures to improve their selfies and pictures on social media platforms”.

Camera

It seems that if the camera is less than five feet away you begin to get distortions in your image. At 12 inches you increase your nose size by 30 per cent. I don’t know what you can do about this and I only mention it as a public service announcement.

Finally, the young philosopher event mentioned above was won by Lauren Doyle (16) from Mount Sackville Secondary School, for a project entitled “Why is nature beautiful and why do we destroy it?”

Human threats to nature; selfies: if you thought philosophy was about dead men with beards, think again.

Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com).

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