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Does the Brain Change Our Travel Memories?

06/08/2013 12:21 BST | Updated 06/10/2013 10:12 BST
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It's difficult to remember a travel experience as a whole. Instead, I tend to remember snippets that whir in and out of focus. Kind of like a dream - you know, where if you think about it directly it disappears but if you lurk at the edges you can sort of get the gist?

Some experiences I can remember better than others, usually because something prominent happened. Others I think I can remember, but I'm pretty sure I've adorned the memory of them in some way with what I think happened.

Do you ever have those moments where you say something out loud, probably quite quietly, but when you think back on it you imagine yourself shouting it inappropriately loudly? I guess it's kind of the same as that. I guess we can project onto our memories, blurring the line between real and fantasy.

Memory is like mental time travel. For us to remember something , our brains have to reflect the same state they were in when we were actually living the moment. When we lose our keys, for example, we'll retrace our steps; what was I doing when I last had them? What did I do after that? This allows our brain patterning to reflect its course of action when we lost our keys, and is therefore more likely to help us find them.

This is why we can get fleeting memories of smells and sounds from places, because it immediately takes our brain back to the state it was in when we first exercised those senses. Travel is a difficult one though; we are usually far away from our common daily life making it tricky to trigger the brain patterns that occurred once we are back home. Perhaps this is why we start to adorn our memories because we can't remember every little detail. The brain likes to do that - add detail even if it's not a particularly accurate account simply so that it has something to show.

When you look back on a travel experience do you get a feeling that accompanies the mental picture? Maybe a flourish of warmth, or a sinking in your stomach if you had a bad time? You would think that the feeling accompanying the memory would reflect the experience you had. Then again, the brain is a funny old thing.

Take, for example, my time in Madrid. I spent most of my time there wishing myself home. It's safe to say that my month in the Spanish capital was a learning curve - one that I couldn't wait to finish whilst I was there.

You would think, then, that when I look back on this memory I would have the ominous sinking feeling, or at least a metaphorical shiver?

Nope. I look back on it with longing nostalgia. Snippets of winding alleyways, crowds at the Puerta del Sol, even waiting at the metro station surface, all with a rose-tinted hue. Such is life. Does this mean that I did in fact have a good time and I was just caught up in the moment whilst there, or is it a sure-fire sign that my brain has decided to edit my experience a little?

Of course, it is hard to remember every single aspect of a travel experience, but the contrast between how I actually felt in Madrid and the feeling I get when I remember my time there seems an odd phenomenon.

Does this mean, then, that our memory of a place can completely change the experience we had whilst actually there? What is more real - the memory or our actual experience even if we can't recall that much of it?