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The Mystery of Memory

Produced by WIRED 01.11.2018 Photographs by Trey Ratcliff

How our brains capture moments of meaning
Photographer Trey Ratcliff’s partnership with The Ritz-Carlton began when he was asked to leave another hotel in Dubai last year while trying to get the perfect angle for a shot. Ratcliff livestreamed his ejection, and recounts that “The Ritz-Carlton wrote in during the broadcast. They said, ‘Come to our hotels and take all the pictures you want.” His resulting '80 Stays Around the World’ series of photos visually documents Ratcliff’s tour of iconic destinations, as a guest of The Ritz-Carlton.

Dr. Caitlin Mullin, a perceptual neuroscientist and MIT researcher, has conducted experiments where subjects view thousands of images, to see which ones are most memorable to humans in general. She found that what makes us remember an image isn’t whether or not it’s aesthetically pleasing or simply different. It’s more complicated than that. Dr. Mullin helped us explain the science behind what makes each of Trey Ratcliff’s images so hard to forget.

LISBON, Portugal: City view

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“Having a background in Computer Science, I'm into the idea of using software to make the photo feel more alive and interesting. Rather than adding or erasing parts of the scene to fake reality, I push and pull the light in the real image, to make it more alive and interesting.” – Trey Ratcliff

The science:

When you are at a scene in person, your pupil darts from place to place to build a patchwork quilt from the light that hits it. Ratcliff uses software to put that effect back into the photo. Your eye darts this way and that, trying to take it all in even as you know you can’t – the same experience you would have if you were really looking at Lisbon below.


BARCELONA, Spain: City view

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“It’s nice for a photo to have a little conversation with itself. Entropy vs. chaos, or fuzzy vs. sharp. This one is a conversation between cool and warm. As night is falling, everything feels very cool. Along the road and speckled around are small warm spots, fighting back against the cool, drawing your eyes to the warmth. Barcelona was a special experience: In each city on the tour, I do a gallery show or an art talk. The Ritz-Carlton team suggested I host the photo talk on the top floor party room of their hotel. It drew a packed house, and everyone got to take photos of the view you see here.” – Trey

The science:

Taking a photo is another way to remember a scene. It brings all the resources of your perceptual system to focus, as you try to decide what you want in the picture. That gives you a boost in memory.


WOLFSBURG, Germany: Autostadt car towers

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“I spend the majority of my day being confused. But now and then I see something that makes sense. A stark white, emotionless robot moving bright primary-colored cars around that are full of life and ready to go...  After a while looking at this, people will suspect that it's a car elevator. It's actually a giant car robot that delivers cars to new Volkswagen owners.” – Trey

The science:

Our brains have the ability to take in the chaos of the world and shape it into something meaningful. Confronted by an overload of sensory input, the disorder eventually melts away. You see parallel lines converging perfectly in the distance, or harmony between colors you didn’t see before.


MOSCOW, Russia: City view

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“I've shown this photo to many well-traveled people, and no one would ever guess it's Moscow. Notice that your eye is drawn to the tall buildings, but they will drift downwards to the colorful apartment blocks. Part of your brain is trying to figure out what is more interesting -- the tall buildings or the apartment blocks -- as the other part of your brain is thinking hey, they go together pretty nicely.” - Trey

The science:

Without minarets, domes, or anything else that matches our “canonical representation” of Russia’s nearly 900-year-old city, Ratcliff’s image clashes with our mental expectation. That triggers an extra-long look.


VIENNA, Austria: Kunsthistorisches Museum

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“I like to engineer mysteries into my photos. Look again at the girl at the bottom. What is she doing? She is holding a camera and squatting. Is she the center of the photo, or am I? Where's everyone else? Is she squatting to get out of the way, or is something else going on? All great to wonder about and never really know. This photo is actually two images stitched together in software.” - Trey

The science:

Our eyes absorb more points of information in a steady stream than our brains can handle all at once. Instead, the brain decides what’s appropriate in the moment to take in, process, and store -- and what to ignore as if it’s not even there. That’s the basis of sleight-of-hand magic tricks. A photo like this works like a magician’s hands performing the opposite stunt: The out-of-place woman on the stairs forces your brain to snap to attention and examine the scene, absorbing details on which you’d have otherwise hit the back button.


BUDAPEST, Hungary: Gellert Thermal Baths

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“I was sitting in the lounge on the top floor of the The Ritz-Carlton. I like to sit there, drink coffee or wine, have my laptop open, and, when I'm not taking photos, I spend a lot of time editing photos. There was a nice lady working there bringing out food, refilling wine, etc. She saw I was a photographer, and I guess she saw my aesthetic onscreen every time she walked by. After about an hour of this, she came over and said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Ratcliff, have you been to the Gellert Thermal Baths? I think it would suit you!’

The place seems out of a Wes Anderson set, but it’s real. There are tricks with perspective in the shot -- that red and white woven band that goes overhead sort of flattens out in an Inception manner.” – Trey

The science:

Studies show that we don’t remember photos because they are beautiful – in fact, for some reason we’re less likely to remember those that are. What makes Ratcliff’s photos so memorable is that their novelty, and his inclusion of visual mysteries, force our brains to stop and pay attention to their details as we try to understand what we’re seeing. Is this a real, three-dimensional room we’re looking at? Is this a set a movie I haven’t seen? Is this CGI? And another deliberate mystery: Who do all those shoes belong to?

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