The combination of smartphones that take great photos and the many forms of social media which allow us to display them provides a perfect storm for online over-sharing.
You might think that documenting every visual feature of your waking existence will help you preserve your finest moments. However, research by Fairfield University psychologist Linda Henkel (2014) suggests that taking a camera-ready approach to your life might actually cause you to lose, not retain, precious memories.
Psychologists know that, in general, it’s better to use so-called deep processing to make sure that you’ll remember what you need to from the vast array of sounds and images that pass in front of you every minute. If you want to remember a face that goes with a name, for example, you need to use cognitive effort, say, to attach unique personal meanings to the features of the person’s face that somehow link to the name itself. Your new acquaintance, Norton, for example, might have a particularly large nose. Tying the “no’s” together will provide you with a lasting, if not flattering, association and you might remember Norton’s name even if you don’t see him for another 6 months.
Memory experts use a special form of deep processing in which they build a “memory palace” in their minds and associate random items—lists of words, numbers, playing cards—with the rooms and objects in that fictional location. They may also make up stories to remember these items based on associating each playing card, for example, with a particular person and then create a story with those people.
Now consider what happens when you’re at an event you want to record for enjoyment at a later time, whether it’s your child’s ballet recital or Little League game, or just a sightseeing trip. You whip out your smartphone or video camera and spend most of the time making sure you capture it all as accurately and completely as possible. However, instead of experiencing the events of the moment, all you’re seeing is what you can fit into your viewfinder. If you inadvertently push the wrong button, run out of device memory, or fiddle with the settings, you’ll not only fail to record the moment electronically, but mentally as well.
The problem with expending so much of your mental energy on recording the moment on a device instead of within your brain is that you won’t truly remember those important moments. The principle, “if you don’t encode you can’t retrieve,” means that unless you pay attention to what’s going on around you, the experiences will be lost forever from your long-term memory.
It’s estimated that as many as 800 billion photos will be taken worldwide in 2014, with over 200,000 uploaded to Facebook every minute. These are a lot of experiences that people think are important, but ironically may never fully remember because of their urge to record them. Many of these photos will be "selfies,” in which one takes a self-photo by switching the lens onto his or her face. Selfies may be a particularly lethal memory-killer, distracting you even more fully from experiencing the event before you because you’re more likely to be fiddling with the camera’s controls.
To investigate the possibility that photographing an event would impair people’s memory of the event, Henkel set up an experiment in which she took college students on a museum tour, asking them to photograph 15 works of art and simply view 15 others without photographing them. The students had 30 seconds to view the objects they did not photograph, but when taking photos, they had to divide their time, using about 20 seconds to look at the object and 10 to take the shot.
The next day, Henkel gave the students several memory tests to see which works of art they were most likely to remember—and as she predicted, the students remembered fewer of the photographed objects overall, as well as remembering fewer details about them.
It’s possible that the students in this study remembered fewer photographed objects because they had less time to view them. However, in real life that's how it works: You have only so much time to look at what you’re photographing and take your picture, especially if it’s to record a fleeting moment at a baseball game, or on a tour in which everyone has to move along at the same pace. If you're on a tour bus of natural sights, for example, you'll typically will only stop so long at one panoramic view before moving off to the next stop. You might spend most of your time at an outlook setting up your shot so it’s just right—and never fully see the place you're supposed to be enjoying.
Henkel was concerned that her original findings were distorted by the differential time participants had to view the objects in the photo and non-photo conditions. So she conducted a follow-up study in which she allowed the same amount of time to view both the photographed and un-photographed objects, and then gave students a few additional seconds to take their pictures. But she also added an interesting variation to the second study’s questions of interest: Would it matter, she wondered, if the students zoomed in on particular features of the works of art rather than just snapping them as a whole? She added a condition in which participants were told to pick out a specific feature of the work of art and concentrate their photos on that detail. In this case, instead of forgetting the items they photographed, they remembered both the parts they zoomed in on as well as the work as a whole. By concentrating their attention on one specific feature, they were able to improve their cognitive processing enough to make up for the general photo-impairment effect.
Not only does zooming in seem to benefit your experiential memories, it’s also possible, as Henkel suggests, that reviewing photos with family, friends, or partners might help you lock those memories more firmly into place. These photos may even improve your romantic relationship if you use your recollections to recall some of the reminiscent spark.
The take-home message from the study is that walking around and snapping as many photos or videos as you can will, in general, lead you to remember less of your experiences. If instead you use your cognitive resources to attend to specific aspects of those experiences, you might emerge with more accurate memories that can, indeed, last a lifetime.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
Henkel, L. A. (2014). Point-and-shoot memories: The influence of taking photos on memory for a museum tour. Psychological Science, 25(2), 396-402.