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Memories of the 28th Century

Photography, a Symptom of Dementia?

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Photography, a Symptom of Dementia

There was a convention of photographers near here recently. It spurred me to think more about the mental aberration that causes people to take photographs, but even after considering the matter, I am not certain exactly why people engage in that behavior, but there probably are several reasons.

The clearest rationale for photography is that photographers have poor memories. If they had good memories, then they wouldnít even consider wasting the time and trouble of preserving pictures of things. Of course, some of them would complain that the photographs are for the benefit of people who werenít there to enjoy the sight, and that might be an adequate explanation, if it werenít possible to explain in words what something was, what happened, or whatever, so it would seem that photographers have limited verbal skills. It isnít unusual for people with limitations in one field of activity to compensate by filling in with an activity that makes up for the lack.

Most people are perfectly capable of understanding a description of a flower, say a yellow daylily, but photographers appear unable to get enough mental cues from someone saying that there were yellow daylilies to be able to picture what the flowers looked like, so they compensate by taking pictures.

That isnít to say that all photographs are signs of mental deterioration. There are unique events that should be recorded, such as alien ships landing, the direct ascent of saints into heaven, visits by the Gods, mares giving birth to geese, and so on. These events are rare, and people who were not in attendance should be allowed to see something of the events, but there are some events that photographs canít convey; Hades passing wind at the reception for the world leaders is in this class of events. And there is a place for photography in recording criminal activities and the likenesses of notorious criminals.

But some people claim that they wouldnít be able to remember events without photographs, and there may be people with that problem. I donít know whether they are telling the truth, but that would be analogous to Socrates complaint about writing, as written by Plato:
ďIf men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.Ē (From ďThe Phaedrus)

I believe that it is most probable that the minds of some people have been damaged by reading and writing, but that writing is a tool for communication at a distance. I wonder whether Socrates ever communicated in writing with people who were far away, but I believe that he did. And I will accept that photographs of things and events that are distant have some value. But that is different from using photographs to show one what one experienced in the past, in oneís childhood for example. Maybe I am mistaken and using photographs of oneís childhood acquaintances is a good way to help remember them, but I prefer to use my own memory, even though I canít tell whether it is perfectly accurate. What is important to me is the impression that a person creates in my mind, rather than the precise contours of that personís face and body. But thatís just me, and I think that I have a very good memory, but I remember what was important to me, and sometimes I almost forget the people that I would have preferred not to remember.

Perhaps my title for this post is a little extreme, but loss of memory is a symptom of dementia. Perhaps there are stages of memory. Infants remember and find important certain things, but the memories of the joys and annoyances of infancy fade when one leaves that stage. And most people have limited memories of their childhood years, and those memories may be lost completely, if they develop senile dementia. The loss of memory may be a necessity as we age, if the human brain has a limited capacity for memories, and we will have to learn to delete memories as human lifespan stretches to several hundred years, because we wonít have enough room to keep all of the memories. But I may be mistaken on this, if memories are like hologram, because then there could be different memories at different angles of the same thing. Thatís something weíll have to determine as the problem arises.

But I wonít use photographs to stand in for my memories of pleasant times, and I will endeavor to forget the unpleasant times. It is written that humans cannot remember the pleasure of an orgasm; although they can remember that it was very pleasant. That is unlike some memories of flavors and sensory thing, sounds, sights, etc. Once in a while I think about that tidbit and try to determine its accuracy.


  1. Paulclem's Avatar
    You seem to be suggesting that people take photos only to remember events, places and people. As well as this there are other reasons why people take photos - particular combinations of colour and light that make the photos artistic, jokes - such as the photos I take of Pot Noodles in various unculinary combinations, and the indescribable such as the look on some people's faces when they are delighted/ scared/ shocked etc etc. And of course a picture speaks a thousand words.

    Have you considered that your lack of appreciation of photography might instead be a symptom of dementia or maybe a developing curmudgeon-ness? (I read your piece on ageing recently haha).
  2. PeterL's Avatar
    Thank you for agreeing with me.