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You see a gorgeous sunset, and your first instinct is to whip out your smartphone and snap a photo. Are you distracting yourself from the spectacle in the sky, or are you helping yourself be more mindful of it? The answer may depend on how and why you use your phone’s camera.

Focus on the moment

Mindfulness involves being fully aware of what you’re experiencing in the present moment and noticing it without judging it. When you spot something eye-catching and decide to take a quick photo with your phone, your attention is drawn to the moment-to-moment visual experience. That digital rectangle acts as a frame, focusing your eyes and your mind on the screen.

This may help you be more attuned to what you see at the moment. And as you continue about your business, an attitude of mindfulness might carry over to other experiences, regardless of whether you photograph them.

The best evidence for this effect comes from a recent study led by Alixandra Barasch, Ph.D., of New York University. In a series of experiments, participants navigated either a real-life museum or a virtual art-gallery. Some could choose to take pictures of objects that caught their attention, either by using an actual camera or by clicking an on-screen button. Others didn’t have this option.

Afterward, people in the picture-taking groups had a better visual memory for specific objects they had seen, compared to those who couldn’t take pictures. Not surprisingly, the effect was strongest for objects they had photographed. But to a lesser extent, it held true for objects they didn’t photograph as well.

Memory and mindfulness aren't identical and, in fact, have a complicated relationship. But these findings show that taking photos and even just having a camera available can change our mental approach to an experience.

Seen but not heard

Interestingly, this same research also highlights a key limitation of experiencing life through a camera lens: It’s all about the visual.

In the study, participants simultaneously listened to an audio-tour while they moved through the museum or virtual gallery. As already noted, the study showed that taking photos improved memory for visual elements of the experience. In contrast, it slightly impaired recall of spoken information.

That’s a potentially important distinction. Many practices for developing mindfulness encourage embracing an experience, such as eating a food or taking a walk, in all its multisensory glory. But taking still photos prioritizes the visual elements above all else. (Does recording video improve attention to auditory details? That's unclear—but you’re still neglecting several senses, in any case.)

If you’re gazing at a beautiful sunset, homing in on visual aspects of the scene may be perfect. But if you’re enjoying a fine meal, you don't want to neglect other sensory properties, such as flavor and aroma. Snap a quick photo, if you wish, but then set your phone aside and savor the meal.

Point, shoot, observe

There are many possible reasons for taking a photo. If you intend to cultivate mindfulness, the tips below may help. Some are based on an emerging body of research looking at the psychological impact of digital photography. Others are rooted in general principles of mindfulness.

Make it snappy! Quick, casual snapshots may be best for this purpose. If you get too wrapped up in posing for or staging a photo, it may take you out of the moment.

Think twice about selfies and group shots. Mindfulness involves awareness of not only sensory input from the external world, but also internal feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. In theory, a snapshot that draws your attention to the serenity you’re feeling or the happiness you’re sharing with friends could help you be mindful.

In reality, taking a selfie often means checking your hair and showing your good side. And taking a group shot often involves trying to get everyone to stand in the right place and smile unblinkingly. Before you know it, your focus is elsewhere, and the moment you were trying to capture has passed.

Selfies and group shots are fun. They may also serve useful functions later on, such as triggering positive memories or communicating your identity to others. But unless they’re quick, candid shots, they may not be the best way to stay in the moment.

Be wary of intentions to post on social media. There’s nothing wrong with taking pictures for the explicit purpose of posting on Instagram or Facebook. That may not encourage mindfulness, however. Instead of simply noticing and accepting what you’re experiencing, you’re probably thinking about how it will look to others.

Regardless of your original intention, what if you end up with a photo you want to share? Ask yourself whether it can wait. Unless there’s a good reason to post immediately, don’t let social media divert your attention from the experience at hand.

Stop, look, listen. Mindfulness is a simple concept, but it can be challenging to implement. If something as handy as a smartphone camera makes it easier for you to get into this frame of mind, why not use it?

Personally speaking, the biggest challenge for me is knowing when to stop photographing the moment and just live it. One thing that helps is telling myself that I’m going to put my phone away and start “taking pictures” with my mind’s eye.

Before long, I’ve dropped the mind-as-camera pretense. I’m fully absorbed in the moment and noticing details that I might have missed if I had never taken my phone out—and then put it away again.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a journalist who specializes in writing about health, wellness, and psychology. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

References

Barasch, A., Diehl, K., Silverman, J., & Zauberman, G. (2017). Photographic memory: The effects of volitional photo taking on memory for visual and auditory aspects of an experience. Psychological Science, 28, 1056-1066.

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