By Jon Karafin

June 16, 2020

Reading Time:
7 Minutes

Holograms may have cognitive benefits for the human mind. They could even help us understand our own lives better by patching up our unreliable memories. How? Let’s start by considering what the human brain has in common with a computer.

For a computer, memory is everything. A computer’s memory holds basic information about its own operation. Programs loaded into computer memory carry instructions for a wide range of complex tasks, from word processing to machine learning.


But a computer’s memory can become unreliable. Programming errors may corrupt system memory, leading to unpredictable behavior. Physical faults with the computer’s storage hardware can corrupt data, making bits of information impossible to retrieve.

Have you ever scrambled to copy irreplaceable data from a failing computer hard drive? Then you know how easily and unpredictably a computer can forget what it knows. And a computer without memory isn’t much of a computer.

Luckily for us, the human brain is much more robust and complex than a mere hard drive. We draw on our memories to understand how to behave, to be productive during our workday, and to share our lives with our friends and family. We don’t lose or overwrite bits of our intimate, personal memories without warning.  

Or do we?  

Psychologists have found that human memory is unreliable

I’m sorry to report some bad news. Our brain is not much like a computer, and human memory is seriously unreliable. It’s not just that you may have a hard time remembering what you had for lunch the Tuesday before last. Even your most foundational formative memories—experiences that are burned into your brain, that influenced how you think of yourself as a person—may be corrupt.

Modified image, original image by Squire, L. R. via American Psychology Association (APA)
Modified image, original image by Squire, L. R. via American Psychology Association (APA)

Did you see this coming? We’ve already considered some of the ways that no less impressive a piece of biology than the human visual system can fail us. In a nutshell, we have evolved highly efficient visual processing at the expense, sometimes, of the completely accurate perception of an image. The same is true of our memories. Our brains encode and preserve memories in a way that almost guarantees they will be flawed, regardless of our confidence in their accuracy.

How can you tell whether a given memory is reliable? Unfortunately, you can’t. How is that possible?

Like the computer mentioned above, the brain uses memory to store and retrieve information. Without the help of our memories, we would be unable to learn new things, form lasting relationships, or function in society. The shortest-term memory, sensory memory, is captured in a relatively unprocessed form. For visual stimuli, it’s called an iconic memory, and it lasts for less than one second. [2] That information is processed in the visual cortex and then transferred to short-term memory, also known as working memory. Short-term memory allows you to think about what you’ve just seen and to retain important information about it. Finally, important events and patterns may eventually be stored in long-term memory.

Different areas of the brain are dedicated to different types of long-term memory. For example, the hippocampus facilitates spatial memory, which helps us navigate the world around us. The cerebellum is involved in procedural memory and motor learning. And the amygdala is associated with emotional memory. [3] [4]

Our emotions influence what, and how, we remember


Emotional memories are fraught with fundamental human feelings such as fear and arousal. And the emotional circumstances under which a memory was acquired can affect how vividly—and how accurately—events are recalled. Citing the research of neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps, psychologist Maria Konnikova explained it this way in The New Yorker.

A key element of emotional-memory formation is the direct line of communication between the amygdala and the visual cortex. That close connection … helps the amygdala … tell our eyes to pay closer attention at moments of heightened emotion. So we look carefully, we study, and we stare—giving the hippocampus a richer set of inputs to work with. At these moments of arousal, the amygdala may also signal to the hippocampus that it needs to pay special attention to encoding this particular moment. These three parts of the brain work together to ensure that we firmly encode memories at times of heightened arousal, which is why emotional memories are stronger and more precise than other, less striking ones. We don’t really remember an uneventful day the way that we remember a fight or a first kiss. [5]

When visual stimuli were associated with negative emotions, studies found that subjects had significantly greater recall of the formed memories. Further, the same studies demonstrated that uneventful moments are filtered from conscious processing, whereas highly emotional ones—like a fight, or that first kiss—increase our attention and enhance the strength of the corresponding memories. [6]

Though we tend to think of our memories as bits of data on a hard drive that may be recalled reliably at will, they are more malleable than we know. The very act of remembering something requires our brains to reassemble the memory from scattered bits and pieces, which can be an imperfect process.

Research has indicated that what we remember is subject to change each time we remember it, as temporal distance grows between subsequent recollections of a memory and the experience that generated it in the first place. It’s like playing “telephone” or “whisper down the lane” with our memory, but without knowing it, and with no ability to recall the original memory that started the game. Cognitive neuroscientist Donna Bridge puts it this way: “Memories aren’t static. If you remember something in the context of a new environment and time, or if you are even in a different mood, your memories might integrate the new information.” [7]

Every time we recall a memory, we may accidentally corrupt it

Complicating the picture, our brains may filter out certain types of memories, which can shape the way we feel about our lives. “For most of us,” writes psychoanalyst Ken Eisold, Ph.D., “that usually means we recall a rosier past than we actually had, though some of us are tormented by memories of a painful past we can’t shake and that seems to get worse every time we revisit them. But for all of us that means an incomplete past.” [8]


The mind may be a marvelous machine, but it has a surprisingly limited capacity to process information. That means the first, most important step in forming a lasting memory is simply to pay attention. The more bits of data that accompany a collection of experiential sensations, the stronger the neural connections are, and the longer-term the memories will be. If we are distracted, our bandwidth-challenged brains won’t bother to encode what seem to be inessential experiences or data for transfer into our memory. But if we make sure to focus our attention—and especially if we use an “elaborative encoding” technique, or mnemonic device, to help us remember—we are more likely to encode that information correctly and recall it accurately in the future. [9]

How are memories corrupted? Figure 2 lays out some textbook examples of how cognitive processes can lead our memories to misfire.

Here's another way our brains can fool us. Have you ever wondered if you really experienced an event or only dreamed it? You’re not alone. One study reported that 25% of college students confused real and dreamed events. [11]

Our own cognitive processes may fail us when it comes to our memory

I could go on, but you get the gist. It’s one thing to have memories start to fade, or to be embellished by the incorporation of new material over time. But what are we to do if our unconscious minds can rewrite our memories with dreams?

Perhaps consumer technology can come to our rescue. What if we painstakingly document important experiences in our lives by taking snapshots with our digital devices, referring to those images later as fixed, irrefutable documents of what actually occurred? Can those picture libraries replace our unreliable memories?


More bad news! Think about the shortcuts taken by our bandwidth-challenged brain, which processes the experiences that seem most important and discards vast amounts of data that never find their way into our memories. Well, the very act of capturing a photo with our phones is itself a distraction. Operating a smart device can take us out of the human moment.

In other words, taking pictures with our phone tells our brain that whatever is happening on the other side of the device cannot be that important, since we’re paying attention to the phone screen rather than to the experience itself. Further, the images that our phone captures are flat, 2D pictures that are not perceived by our brains in the same way as real people and objects.

Documenting our experiences with digital photos can make matters worse

I will look more closely at this phenomenon — and its implications for a world that generates more photographic imagery than ever before — in the following chapters of this series. For now, let me leave you with some hope. One of the reasons two-dimensional images are poor replacements for memories is that 2D images lack depth cues, meaning our brain gleans considerably less information from its visual perception of them than it does from a real-world experience. Research shows that we remember real objects better than flat image representations. [12]

If it’s possible for a new generation of display technologies to render high-fidelity holographic images—so natural-looking that you feel you could reach out and touch them—wouldn’t those images appear substantially more realistic than the flat pictures we take now? Might they provide more information to stimulate our brains? And could that new type of image actually increase our cognitive capacity?

Next, let’s see what we can learn about the future of photography — about what kind of advancements are necessary to make photographs increase our brain activity, rather than reduce it — from the impressive (and not-so-impressive) history of photography to date.





[5] - [6]




[10] – [11]


June 16, 2020