I went whale-watching in Monterey, California once a few years ago.
I remember almost every detail--the sound of the waves against the boat, the giant whale rising from the depths, the call of the seagulls overhead. In my mind's eye, I see the people in bright-colored jackets mingling about on the boat, the sun sinking low in the horizon like a red globe, and the aluminum flagpole that made a strange whispering sound.
Because it was partly a business trip, I decided to take the trip at the last minute and didn't bring a camera. It turns out, according to as new book released this month, that it was a blessing in disguise. In Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self (and a matching TED talk from last spring), Manoush Zomorodi writes (and talks) about how our creativity and brainstorming works better when we are more present in the moment and not so distracted by gadgets.
It's an amazing insight, because she makes several good points.
We text constantly, showing that we're incredibly "responsive" but it also means we are never bored. In her book and talk, she explains how neuroscientists have discovered a ton about our default mode--think of it is daydreaming while you do laundry or driving a car. In this daydreaming state, we record mental notes and even file snapshots of events and moments of our lives into memory. It's one reason multitasking doesn't really exist, the author asserts. She says we shift attention every 45 seconds. We check email 74 times per day. We shift tasks on a PC about 560 times. It's a problem, and it's getting worse.
So, back to that photograph problem. On my whale-watching trip, think about what I was doing the entire time. I know one thing: i wasn't worrying about a camera. For some reason, our brains tend to sort of switch off memory function when we stare at a camera. We know those images will be stored for later use. We're not really that present, in many ways, because we know we don't have to be present.
For me, I've been at events (hello, Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas) and on vacations with a camera and focused only on the device itself--wondering if I had enough memory or if the settings were correct. I tuned out everything else, including (to my own disgrace) the friends and family around me. I wasn't listening to the sounds around me or watching the sky as the sun started to sink low. I was in photographer mode, looking for the best moments to capture but not as clued in about the ancillary moments.
It's a troubling scenario. It made me wonder how many times, as a journalist, I've focused (pun intended, mostly) on snapping the best photo but not being present. Looking back at some of my favorite interviews, with people like Ken Burns or 50 Cent, I honestly don't remember as many details because I was furiously taking notes. In recent years, I've started doing two interviews. One is more formal--a recording with set questions. One is a hangout session to pick up on body language and shoot the breeze.
Guess which interview I remember the most?
Yet, many of us rely on our phones too much to record the moment. It's a dangerous habit because we're not as present, not as aware, not as clued in. Some of us need to set the phone down, to experience an event of a party with full attention, not half attention.
If you try that approach, see if you remember more details. Try avoiding the trap of trying to capture everything digitally and capturing everything with human emotion and intellect.