Making memories: Is the digital age transforming how we remember?

Our memories make us who we are. They shape us as people and affect how we live our lives. From the first day of school and our first love to the holiday of a lifetime and experiences with our dearest friends – treasured memories stay with us forever.

Have you ever wondered how your memory works? In an age where technology is at the forefront of our lives, we wanted to know whether there is still value in holding on to tangible memories.

A Research Professor, a Clinical Psychologist and a Therapist have given us the latest on how our brains remember in the 21st century, and just what keeping a memory box can do for us. Is there still value in keeping something tactile to hold onto our memories? Whether it’s small cardboard boxes at the top of a wardrobe, or a wooden chest tucked away under the bed, there’s something wonderful about digging out a treasured collection of items for a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

We’ve spoken to a range of different people about their memory boxes and enlisted the help of experts to try to understand whether tangible memories still hold power in the digital age.

Tangible memories

Digital memories

Tangible memories

Memory boxes give us a tangible connection to our past. People keep them for a variety of reasons, but they all have one thing in common: to keep our memories from fading. Whether it’s an old ticket stub or a treasured photograph, there’s something comforting about keeping memories within the physical realm – something even more poignant in today’s digital age.

This may be because as Clinical Psychologist Dr Tony Ortega highlights, when it comes to digital “You can literally wake up and it’s gone, and it’s gone forever. It’s much more of a dramatic loss. While memory boxes aren’t quite as mobile, they are more versatile in that you can keep so much more.”

Memory boxes not only give us a gateway into the past, they provide a reminder that not everything can be digitised. In research conducted by the Horniman Museum, London, it was revealed that people who physically held objects from the museum felt a stronger connection with them than those who only viewed them. Could this translate to our relationship with memory boxes and digital memories too? Harley Street Therapist and Counsellor Laura Cordwell suggests, “The difference in experience was clear, with all those who could hold an object [they were] happy that they could do so, and all those who could view the object only, wished they had been able to hold [it].”

This suggests we seek a more intimate experience with our memories, striving for something more than we can simply see or hear. According to Cordwell, “tangible memories are important because our technology at present helps us to remember in visual or audio ways, but cannot provide experience of taste, smell or touch.” She goes on to say that, “these factors are equally important in the way we experience things and store those experiences.”

In fact, tangible memories don’t only help us to preserve a memory but pass it on too. Experts also agree that they are proven to have a positive effect on intergenerational relationships for the future. As Dr Ortego says: “It’s almost like giving a tradition to the younger generation.”

“Despite the decay and wear and tear of photographs, letters and other objects that are reminders of people and past experiences, their keeping is like holding on to those people and experiences.”

– Professor Andrew Hoskins, Research Professor in the College of Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow and Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Sage Journal of Memory Studies

Ultimately, Dr Tony Ortega believes the memories recalled via tangible means are “much more vibrant and vivid” than those triggered by non-tangible memories. This could be because our tangible memories allow us to access all our five senses simultaneously – a powerful potion for evoking our emotional triggers and transporting us to an exact time, place and moment.

A memory box preserves every part of these moments, and when you open the lid they come flooding back to us.

Digital memories

These days we’re moving towards an entirely digitised world. We store photos on our phones, or post them on social media sites, but few of us actually print them out anymore. The act of memory is no longer about actually remembering and is more about knowing where to look. Tickets to shows and concerts come in digital form, and email has far surpassed letter writing. The shift towards an online world means the tangible memories we do have are becoming even more precious.

It’s true, though, that the digital nature of today’s world allows us to document, store and access more memories more easily, meaning we can access them at the touch of a button. Laura Conrad highlights that “videos and photos online can of course carry very special memories and really show the character of a person.” And, of course, there’s the added benefit of them being instantly shareable.

But does all this come at a cost? Professor Andrew Hoskins states: “We are no longer just reliant on media for memory but are now dependent on it.” Whenever we want to look back on something, we refer to our digital memories – whether that’s a photo on Facebook, a message from a far-flung friend or an online boarding pass – and it is believed this excess of ‘digital memories’ could in fact make us lose our real ones.

“We do not have any certainty over how long anything was posted or sent via social media will last, who will have access to it and when, nor who actually owns the message or photograph, or video sent or stored via digital networks and platforms.” In this way, digital memories lack the permanence of physical keepsakes.”

– Professor Andrew Hoskins, Research Professor in the College of Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow and Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Sage Journal of Memory Studies

This could also be causing a compulsion for recording all aspects of our life, making the act of recording more urgent than the actual enjoyment of the event: “The present is literally being screened out by the digital as the default way of seeing the world.”

Ultimately the digital realm offers new ways to store memories but can both imprison and liberate active human remembering and forgetting. As Lorna Conrad concludes, “photos and videos will clearly help us to remember an event, but so can smells, tastes, music, people’s faces, small objects and many other things” which we may be missing out on – especially when we are not paying attention to the physical here and now.

In this respect, physical memory boxes offer a more holistic approach to the act of remembering, encouraging us to – in the words of Dr Tony Ortega: “appreciate our memories […] much more mindfully.”

Treasure your memories

Lots of us use a memory box to help us remember special times in our lives. Though the boxes themselves can range from a basic cardboard box to an elaborately decorated wooden chest, it’s what’s inside that truly matters. We reached out to ask others about their memory boxes, and to find out exactly why they held on to the items inside. Here are just some of the wonderful responses, showcasing just how treasurable our tangible memories really are.

By Annie Taylor

“Many years ago, my Grandma gifted me her button tin. A familiar childhood object, it seemed the obvious place to store my mementoes. Pictured are a few of the treasured possessions stored in it. Some much-loved childhood toys; the door number from our first home; a rock from the crater of Vesuvius and a shell from the shores of the Caribbean; family heirlooms; a Star Trek communicator prop; an illustrated egg; tickets from unforgettable concerts; my beloved dog Gertie’s collar and a lock of her hair. And the photograph at the top? That’s me, aged five.”

By Lynn Savage

“This is my 'Family Firsts Memory Box'. We have my nan's first teacup and her identity card, my dad's first driver’s licence and his compass that's been to Everest. My mum's first car is in the photo, her girl guide badges and librarian and prefect badges from school too. The silk postcard sent by my grandad to my nan in WW1 is a treasure. Just below the original train book is a real gem, Dad's first keyring with a tiny fold out book of naked ladies. All these are in our much-treasured family memory box. “

By Caroline Cordery

“My memory box is a 1960s suitcase from a charity shop. Only one clasp works and it’s bulging when closed – only half my books are seen here. For years I’ve stored my travel journals in it, as well as my university days scrapbook and other personal diaries (age 11 to 25). I travelled for 8 years on my own and wrote every day, sticking in memorabilia such as boarding cards, banknotes and coins, entrance tickets, maps with my route, quotes from fellow travellers, love letters, bottle tops, menus and photographs: things you can’t always keep digitally. I’m so glad I made them!”

By Vicki Coombe

“My memory box is a little different as it reminds me where I came from and where my passion for photography began. Something that started in a darkroom when I was just 13 years old with an old battered camera and black and white film. In fact, the box itself is an old Ilford paper box that I used to store all my precious prints. That same box has been with me ever since. The negatives are long gone making them all the more precious to me.”

By Ruth Kelly

This memory box is a way of ensuring my Son has a record of his earliest years. I don’t have parents to answer my questions about when I was little, so in the coming years if ever he asks a question, or a memory is sparked I’ve hoarded to fill gaps and provide answers. The blankie he was inseparable from until he was 8, the first train ticket, school report, every Mother’s Day card he made in school... Feel-good nostalgia, every bit of it.

By Vee Wong

“In my memory box contains a notebook – a collection of precious memories and thoughts; my very first stethoscope and my ID badges to date – to commemorate how hard I have worked, and to celebrate how far I have come; a fabric Chinese red packet – to remind me of my upbringing and a symbol of good fortune and blessing; an Instax camera – to capture new memories, and to be able to reminisce the old; and small souvenirs, trinkets and other mementos with stories to tell – a reminder to myself to never stop exploring, learning, and discovering.”

By Rachel Howlett

“My memory box is a brightly coloured cardboard one I was given as a present years ago - it’s just the right size for mementos of three people I have sadly lost - Grandpa, Nana and Auntie Alison. It contains items that belonged to them, letters they wrote to me, a flyer for my aunt's restaurant and the book my friends gave me after she died. Holding the things they once held in their hands or wore around their necks makes me feel close to them and I think of happy memories - I will always treasure them.”

By Christine Monk

“I love these old paper horseshoes from my parents' wedding over 70 years ago! Cherished by my parents and passed on to me, I keep them in my parent’s old document box along with a 21st birthday greetings card to my mum, my christening gown and Baby's First 5 Years book, teething beads and hairbrush.”

By Emma Flynn

“This box was quickly put together when I was undergoing treatment for cancer, so I could look through it during hospital stays. It holds all of my memories with my partner - a kind of pick-me-up - and I absolutely love it. After all, she is the most important person in my life and would do anything for me. 29 cards, endless love notes, pictures and other bits and pieces for us to look back on. It’s not very organised, but that’s just how I like it.”

By Samantha Bolter

“It contains things that were personal to both my mum and dad when they were alive. Simple little things like a shoe cleaning brush and pen knives that belonged to my dad and inherited from his father. There is a gold chain or two, again inherited from my grandmother and passed on to my mum, then me. The South African stamp is one that was on a letter sent by my grandfather on his travels, which arrived a few weeks after he passed away. An old medal from school, a little box with my children’s milk teeth and my first ever letter from my husband. Everything holds generations of memories of which there are hopefully many, many more.”

Getting a glimpse into the treasured memories of others can help us to think about what we hold dear and what we would like to remember. If you’re inspired to create your very own collection of memories, all you need to begin is a box of any kind – whether that’s an old biscuit tin, a treasured jewellery box or even simple cardboard boxes from a house move - and some of the things that bring you joy.

Who we’ve collaborated with

Professor Andrew Hoskins

Professor Hoskins is Interdisciplinary Research Professor in the College of Social Sciences at the University of Glasgow. His research connects multiple aspects of the emergent digital society: media, memory, war, conflict, security and privacy to explore holistically the interplay and impact of contemporary media and memory ecologies. He is founding Editor-in-Chief of the SAGE Journal of Memory Studies and founding Co-Editor of the Palgrave Macmillan Memory Studies book series. @andrewhoskins

Dr Tony Ortega

Dr Ortega is a licensed clinical psychologist, life coach, and author who has been in practice since 1992, currently serving the LGBTQ population in his private practice located in Brooklyn, New York. Tony combines cognitive behavioural techniques along with active coaching and metaphysical principles in his work with clients. He works with his clients within these three principles: Rewrite Your Story, Find Your Voice, and Live Authentically.

Lorna Cordwell

Lorna Cordwell is a therapist and Head of Counselling at Chrysalis Courses. Lorna has counselling and hypnotherapy practices in York and on Harley Street and is Head of Counselling at Chrysalis Counselling Courses where she has trained hundreds of counsellors and hypnotherapists since 2005. She offers sessions to clients for many issues specialising in stress and anxiety.