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Point-and-Shoot Memory: How Does Photographing Things Affect Our Brains?

Although I’ve always assumed that the act of photographing improved my memory for places, events, faces, and moments, it turns out that my tendency to whip out the camera may actually be sabotaging my ability to remember my life.

Take a picture; it'll last longer! Louvre visitors snap pics of the "Mona Lisa." Photo via WikiMedia.

I have always taken a lot of photographs, even before it was possible to carry 4,000 iPhone pics around in my pocket. I liked how taking a picture created and memorialized the distance between the world and me. My photos would be artifacts of my experience, irrefutable, irreducible proof of how I saw.


I still hold onto this romantic justification for what has been referred to as a paparazzi-like persistence in getting the right shot, even though I feel increasingly pissed off by most people’s obnoxious photography habits. I might not have the moral standing to be so incensed when a concert is ruined by the asshats in front of me who insist upon lofting their glowing phones to record a show in blurry snaps and unwatchable video, but I still am. I get grossed out by people who Instagram pictures of their perfect eggs or post boring dinner party pictures to Facebook. And at museums, I send white-hot wrath-rays at the tourists who scurry from painting to sculpture to relic, shooting each artwork without ever looking up from their LCD screens. I know I’m being a total grump, but it just seems gluttonous and redundant to take so many (mostly bad) pictures that no one is ever going to want to look at again.

Despite all my rage, I am as guilty as everyone else. In the museum, I see things I want to remember: a spooky vanitas painting with skull, or a lascivious Balthus painting of a young girl lifting her skirt for a cat, or a particularly ugly medieval Christ baby. So I take that picture, hoping that the act of taking it and the photograph itself will allow me to revisit what I’ve seen. It’s not a new thing to outsource like this. Throughout history, humans relied on external technology to supplement what we keep in our heads. From cuneiform tablets counting wheat bundles to the Torah to papyrus paintings of Egyptian royal politics to personal diaries, we have figured out ways to preserve data about human experience. But it’s never been as easy or as cheap as it is now, when you can buy a terabyte of storage the size of a calculator for less than a hundred bucks then put thousands of pictures on it that you will never have to look at again.


How does all of our picture-taking and hoarding affect our memory? According to psychologists, our brains absorb much more information than we intend to retain, while operating a kind of economy of cognition, which runs a constant calculus about what’s most useful to keep in our heads. Scientists have long documented a “directed forgetting effect”--that is, people are actually more likely to forget things they’ve been told are unimportant. In a 2011 study, researchers found that this effect is also abetted by the internet—subjects were less likely to remember information they believed they could Google later.

Although I’ve always assumed that the act of photographing improved my memory for places, events, faces, and moments, it turns out that my tendency to whip out the camera may actually be sabotaging my ability to remember my life. In a paper in Psychological Memory from December, Fairfield University researcher Linda Henkel suggests that taking a picture activates a form of the “directed forgetting effect.” Her experiment found that subjects asked to photograph specific objects in a museum were less likely to remember what they saw then when they did not use the camera. “When people hit the button to take the photo, they’ve basically sent a message to their brain saying, the camera will remember this for me,” she told me over the phone late last month. This “photo impairment effect” was only negated when the study participants were asked to photograph a smaller section of an artwork. In that case, people remembered the whole object as well as the zeroed-in-upon part, showing that specific focus can still yield an accurate observation of the bigger picture.


Perhaps you don’t need to devote all your mindgrapes to a friend-of-a-friend’s birthday drinks from last month, but it sucks to think that there’s a possibility that we’re any less engaged in the world because we’ve trying to capture too much of it. I spoke to Henkel about memory and forgetting, the mind’s eye versus the camera’s eye, and how taking a picture is not the same as looking at a picture.

VICE: I was reading about the enactment effect, which is the idea that we remember things we do rather than things we observe. I always thought of photography as a way to engage rather than passively experience, but what your experiment seems to suggest that taking a picture is a thinking act, not a physical act.
Linda Henkel: I thought going into this experiment that maybe taking photos would actually boost memory. It is a slightly different level of activity, the act of taking the photo. I wasn’t able to include this in the article itself, but I did analyze people’s memory for the source, to see how often they remembered taking a picture when they really did take the picture, and how often they remembered looking at an object when they had just looked at it. They were pretty much equally remembered, actually. There wasn’t a significant difference. So their ability to remember how they experienced the object was no better when they had taken a picture than when they had just looked at it.


Even though you’re doing more than just looking at something when you take a photo, you’re not doing that much more. It’s just one step away from looking, and that’s not enough to make a difference.

In your paper, you write, “the camera’s eye is not the mind’s eye.” What does that mean?
What your brain actually represents is not the same thing as what you photograph. In my first experiment, I had people either just look at an object or take a photo of the whole thing. In the second experiment, I had people either look at an objects or I had them use the camera to zoom in on a very specific detail of the object—on the hands of the statue or the sky part of a painting, for example. It seems like they’d have a better memory for the zoomed-in-on feature, but it turns out that their memory was just as good for the features they didn’t zoom in on. The camera takes a snapshot of what your eyes were looking at, but the human brain is much more flexible than the simple machine. In your brain you’re creating a mental representation of the whole object. You’re thinking of the statue as a whole even though you’re only looking at one part of it. So that’s what you’re going to be left with. What the brain remembers is definitely not the snapshot that you took.

The snapshot becomes a synecdoche for the object itself, or a kind of visual mnemonic.
Exactly. And if you look at the photos later on, they’ll serve as wonderful retrieval cues. But the truth is that we don’t look at those photos. I didn’t include that in the study—I just took pictures and didn’t give the subjects the opportunity to look at them later on. If you don’t look at your photos, you don’t get to take advantage of the mnemonic. If you don’t look at your day planner you’re not going to remember your appointments, either.

But there’s a big difference between recording a static artwork and recording a moment from experience, which is by nature a capturing of a detail of a larger thing.
I can only draw conclusions from this study about how we remember static objects. I don’t know what it would be like if they were photographing a scene or a complex event. We might treat social objects like people differently; we might treat larger complex events differently. There’s not a lot of research yet looking at what we take photos of in our daily lives.

Is there any way to set up an experiment to see if there is a situation in which taking a photograph would improve memory? Perhaps looking at a photograph at a set interval could increase the half-life of memory?
In this experiment, I was trying to model a real life phenomenon, in which we take photos and don’t look at them afterwards. But it could be really important to see how I think if you waited a week to test the subjects on their memory, you’d see a slightly different long term affect. But it could go either way. Over time memory decays so much that you don’t remember much of anything. It would be interesting to see how time effected memory, with or without the photos.

By directing the subjects to take pictures of things they aren’t naturally drawn to, aren’t you creating an inherent bias to forget?
So in order have control in our experiment, I needed to tell the subjects what to look at. While they are looking at the objects for 25 seconds they had no idea if they were going to continue looking or take a photo. It’s possible that if you feel something is important enough to photograph, that emotion could boost memory. But again, you’ve pressed the button and outsourced it to an external memory device, so the forgetting effect could still operate. We still need to run a study comparing self-determined versus experimentally-dictated photos.

Has this study changed the way you take pictures?
Not necessarily. My father was a photographer and I’ve always liked taking pictures. I try to look at my pictures. I still print out photo books. But I also take pictures on my phone even though I’m never going to do anything with them. I’m as guilty as everybody else.[ @roseolm](