Developing a Photographic Memory

by Clark Zimmerman, LAc.


  My grandpa was a character.  By the time I knew him he had retired from a university professorship and moved to a farm in southern Illinois.  He chain-smoked generic cigarettes and drank cheap beer in front of a small television set in his basement.  He was indeed from a different era.  He was also an exceptional card player.  I remember countless games of Gin Rummy in that smoky basement.  Even though my siblings and I were his grandkids, he never let us win.  Grandpa was nearly impossible to beat because he had a photographic memory.

Needless to say, I grew up intrigued with the idea of having a photographic memory.  I loved the idea of being able to remember everything that I read.  Fast-forward thirty years:  it seems that a different sort of “photographic memory” is becoming more common.  This sort of memory is influenced by the widespread use of digital cameras and smart phones.  Research conducted by Linda Henkel of Fairfield University has demonstrated what she refers to as “photo-taking impairment effect.”  This term describes how taking more pictures is related to a decrease in people’s ability to remember an event.  It seems that the brain doesn’t work as hard at remembering something if you can count on a picture to remind you of details.  Like our muscles, the brain benefits from being challenged with tasks.  It’s like the saying goes: “use it or lose it.”  When we rely on something to do a task for us, we risk an increased likelihood of atrophy.  It’s like if a healthy person refused to walk and chose instead to use a wheelchair to get around, it wouldn’t be too long before the person actually needed the wheelchair because their body would lose the ability to walk.  So when we use a tool to remember things, we gradually lose our ability to recall things in an optimal way.  Henkel also pointed out that when we document everything with photographs, we compromise the elastic nature of memory.  A photograph is a “snap-shot” of a specific moment in time, but the shot is fixed in that it is only one perspective.  When we look back at a photo of an event, we tend to see it through that limited, one-dimensional view.  This can compromise the wholeness of a memory, confining it to an overly streamlined view.  In addition to these things, relying on photos to remember things means that our memory of an event doesn’t have room to evolve.  We think of our memories are being fixed in stone, but research has shown that our memories of events actually change over time.  As we grow and our understanding and wisdom continue to develop, our relationship with the past changes with it.  This allows us to mine new information from our past that helps us evolve into more complete human beings.

   Of course, there are other potential issues with the overuse of digital photography.  Most of us know of the overwhelm that happens when we begin to unpack all of the photos that we have taken.  The process of sorting through and deleting photos and videos can take hours.  We can be so intimidated by the process that we avoid it altogether, until we have thousands of photos that we never look at.  Then we simply collect photos without them meaning much.  Another issue is that rather than being present in the moment, too often people experience a place through the lens of a camera.  This myopic view limits the fullness of the moment.  I recently witnessed this on a trip to the Grand Canyon:  everyone was looking at this amazing vista through a small screen.  It seemed to me to be a missed opportunity to take in the real magic of this special place.

     To be honest, I take pictures with my phone.  I’m sure that there are times that I overdo it.  As I think about maintaining balance in my life, I have been increasingly leaving the camera in my pocket, or at home.  If I do use it I am practicing taking one or two photos and realizing that this is enough.  I am more frequently focusing on being in the moment, rather than photographing the moment and trying to experience it later.  If I ever were to develop a photographic memory, I would want it to be like the one my grandfather had, not the diminished capacity that is more typical of modern times.

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Perfect is the Enemy of Good

by Clark Zimmerman, L.Ac.

Years ago my wife and I spent a month in Tibet.  We traveled to a sacred mountain called Mt. Kailash in the far western part of the country.   It was remarkable being in the thin air and the barren landscape of the high Tibetan plateau.  The natural beauty of the Himalayan mountains was breathtaking: bright colors adorned the temples, the people, and even the yaks as they plowed the fields.  It was all so foreign that it was almost as if we had been transported to an entirely different world.  With all of these unusual sights and experiences, the thing that stood out the most to us was the grace and apparent comfort of the Tibetan people.  When I say comfort I don’t mean that they lived comfortable lives–rather, they were comfortable in who they were.  With no mirrors or Facebook accounts, people didn’t fixate on how they looked.  The lack of dentistry meant most people past a certain age were noticeably missing teeth, and people were wrinkled and weathered by the elements.  With the constant wind and yak dung fires that provided warmth, along with the lack of showers, most people were covered with dust and smelled of smoke.  Despite all of this, the people were so kind and welcoming.  They really were comfortable in their own skin. 


  When I contrast this with so many Americans that I know, it amazes me how different our cultures are.  Though our culture is so abundant, so many of us are preoccupied with a sort of perfection that was absent in Tibet.  As we have become wealthier as a nation, we are becoming increasingly fixated on image and appearance.  Social media feeds show us a never-ending procession of perfect bodies, meals, and vacations.  They encourage us to compare our insides with everyone else’s outsides.  So many people get caught up in how to craft and maintain an image that is bigger than life.  We pursue a certain look, a perfectly manicured lawn, or a shiny car, but it doesn’t bring us more happiness.  It doesn’t improve our quality of life.  In fact, rates of anxiety and depression are increasing at an alarming rate, as are the use of the medications that treat them.  People are also spending more money in an effort to “keep up with the Jones’s.”  We are chasing a state of perfection that doesn’t exist, and we are making ourselves sick doing it.  While adults are struggling, kids are having an even harder time.  Without the reference point of a childhood before the constant messages of social media, children and young adults have been taught to believe that image is the most important thing.  How you look, how appealing the package is what gets you the most “likes.”  It’s like those Hollywood facades that they used in the old western movies:  The front is put together, but there is nothing inside the saloon. 


  So what is the solution?  As a society we need to reevaluate our priorities.  This involves finding ways to encourage substance over packaging.  People who don’t know any better are fooled by the package and the bling.  Reality stars whose claims to fame are how good of a shopper they are or how they apply their makeup, need to be turned off.   People who teach of patience and presence need to reclaim a place in our daily lives.  This involves turning off the phone or the computer once in awhile, and tuning into things that teach peace of mind.  For some, this is a good church that preaches the real gospel of love and service.  Others find it in a yoga, meditation class or a good self help book.  Wherever you find it, peace comes with the realization that none of us are perfect.  We each get to acknowledge our human flaws:  each wrinkle, pimple or bad mood.  We get to see ourselves as a true reflection of the divine, living in an imperfect body and mind.  The work involves witnessing each of our imperfections and finding a way to embrace them and using them to catalyze growth.  When we remember that life never was and never will be perfect, we get to put our energy into acceptance and growth.  In Tibet crooked teeth aren’t crooked, they’re  just teeth.

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Expanding Your Comfort Zone

by Clark Zimmerman, LAc.

Years ago, my wife and I spent some of our honeymoon in Fiji.  Most of the time we stayed in a small village called Lavena that was on the edge of a large jungle forest preserve.  Though the village had no running water or electricity, the villagers were some of the most content people we have ever met.  In so many ways Lavena was the picture perfect paradise that you dream of when you think of a tropical honeymoon getaway.  The jungle was wild and alive, the ocean was an otherworldly aqua, and the water was so clean that you could drink it straight from the creek as you swam underneath the waterfalls near the village.  However, about a week into our three-week stay, we had a rude awakening: there was a massive hatch of a tropical fly.  Suddenly flies were everywhere.  It reminded us of videos we had seen of people in impoverished areas of Africa, where the flies would cover peoples faces, crawling in their ears, mouth and eyes. All of the sudden everything we did seemed like an invitation to be covered in flies.  It was nearly too much to bear.  The locals didn’t seem to even notice.  Since they had lived with this as a part of their reality, they had developed the ability to go about their life with minimal bother.  It got me and my wife thinking about how specific our comfort range had become.

Traveling to undeveloped countries makes you truly realize how spoiled most of us are in the United States.  We live in homes with running water and electricity; we heat and cool our rooms and our cars; we eat food that suits our particular tastes; we sleep in comfy beds; we bathe and wear scents to cover our odor; we wear headphones to hear what we want to hear and earplugs to block the things we don’t want to hear.  We control just about every aspect of our environment to make life as comfortable as possible.  Most of the time this makes life easier.  But what happens when we can’t control our surroundings?  For most of us, if something feels uncomfortable, we fixate on whatever isn’t just right.  A picnic becomes too hot to enjoy; a walk in the snow becomes too cold;  food is too spicy or unappetizingly bland; too much noise or silence can overwhelm us.  We have narrowed our range of comfort to a point where almost everything feels uncomfortable.  It makes me wonder sometimes if all of these comforts are more of a blessing or a curse.  I am not suggesting that you disconnect your air conditioning, but just as you stretch your muscles to keep them flexible, it is a helpful exercise to stretch your comfort zone from time to time.  Stretching your comfort zone can be helpful in a few important ways.  It can make you more appreciative of all the comfort you enjoy.  It is like when you go backpacking and sleep on the hard, cold ground and eat instant food.  When you get home your bed feels like heaven and a simple meal can taste like a gourmet feast.  It can also help you maintain resilience so you are better able to withstand times when things aren’t as comfortable. 

No matter how much you try to control your environment, things periodically will not go according to plan.  If you don’t occasionally practice being uncomfortable, the slightest deviation in your day can ruin an otherwise beautiful moment.  You can do this by letting yourself get a little hot or cold, fasting part of the day or getting up extra early and watching the sunrise.  Just ask yourself what discomfort you are the most adverse to and lean into it once in a while.  The benefits will most likely outweigh the cost.

It took a while, but my wife and I finally settled into the flies in Fiji.  Once we stopped complaining about them, we figured out times when we could go out when they weren’t as thick.  Then after a few days, they thinned out and became much less noticeable.  In the end, we thanked the flies as reminders to keep continuing to expand our comfort zones.

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