The Friday 5:48 p.m. flight to Detroit out of Washington Reagan National Airport is not full of kids and tourists. It's packed with business travelers in suits, expensive watches and polished leather pumps.

I've recognized politicians and lobbyists; overheard congressional staffers on this flight. They're coming back from meetings or Washington jobs that keep them away from their Michigan homes.

But instead of reading as I usually do, I was gazing around and noticed something again and again on the iPhones and Androids in view.

The tall man one row up on the other side of the aisle did it first. He closed his email and opened up his photos. He quickly scrolled through a bunch of shots and stopped on a picture of himself. In it he was with a smiling blond-haired little boy that looked just like him.

He lingered and flipped through a few more pictures of the kid. Then he swiped back to the picture of him with his son.

The guy next to me did the same thing but instead of photo of him and a child it was him and a beautiful dark-haired woman. He looked at a few more pictures of her and then returned to the one of the two of them.

All around me, in dim light, these road warriors were gazing at images of them with the humans and pets they clearly cared about somewhere 35,000 feet below.

I'd never really thought about it before, but I’ve done this, too. In these moments, I'm mentally desperate to be home after a long business trip, but my body is still in that cocooned limbo of air travel.

At first, it just seemed so embarrassingly narcissistic to look at these pictures of yourself with your loved ones that I pushed this quirk of mine out of my mind. But since I’m clearly not the only one, there must be a reason many of us do this. I guess it is a way to trick a homesick brain into being back where our hearts are.

In years past, soldiers carried letters from home with them as a reminder of where they’d rather be. Seperated lovers kept locks of hair. But an image, even a digitized one on a smartphone, is so worth 1,000 words. In this age of “pics or it didn't happen,” these images of us with our loved ones may be how we convince ourselves of our social ties when we’re apart.

While we wring our hands about all the ways technology is destroying our relationships, there will always be things we have to do that take us away from home and the ones we love. If the photos on our phones are a comfort, particularly when we feel disconnected and alienated as we hurtle through modern life at 500 miles per hour, that’s not a bad thing.

Tamar Charney writes occasionally on topics as varied as  haints Yik Yak jihadi bridesand  things Icelandic. She is not opposed to the use of the Kinks' "This Time Tomorrow" (below) as an audio addition to the story.

From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International