Ashley Meyer, Ph.D.

Ashley N. D. Meyer Ph.D.

C is for Cognition

Taking Pictures Might Impair Your Memory

How being behind the lens might make us forget

Posted Mar 03, 2014

Pictures have many advantages. They allow us to share our most precious (or embarrassing) memories with others, like the time you tried to cut your own hair…They allow us to convey a thousand words without slaving over a computer and most importantly, they allow us to rely on the camera’s memory rather than on our own. We can review our photos after an event and reminisce, reminding us of good times and can then save our memory for important things like remembering all of the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody.

Although pictures can help us remember times from our past, the act of taking photos, on the other hand, might actually impair our memory according to a new study by Linda A. Henkel published in Psychological Science.

In Henkel’s study (Experiment 2), 46 undergraduate students were led on museum tours in which they were each told to view 27 museum objects. These objects included a variety of things one would encounter at a museum: paintings, sculptures, jewelry, a penny-smashing-machine, etc. (okay—not the penny-smashing machine, although no good museum would neglect having one). The participants were told to view objects in three different ways (each person viewed 9 objects in each of 3 viewing conditions):

  • view the object for 25 seconds (the looked at only condition)
  • view the object for 25 seconds, then take photograph of entire object (the photographed-whole condition)
  • view the object for 25 seconds, then take photograph of specific part of object (i.e., a zoomed in view of one aspect of the object) (the photographed-detail condition)

Each participant visited the same 27 objects, but had differing instructions so that each object was viewed and/or photographed in different conditions for different people. This was done in case any particular object was simply more memorable than others were (we wouldn’t want there to be an advantage to one condition just because it had a memorable three-headed monkey robot in its group!). Of additional importance, the tour was organized in such a way, that participants did not pass by the same objects more than once, as this would affect participants’ ability to remember items. Lastly, note that regardless of whether participants took a picture of an object or not, they still had 25 uninterrupted seconds to view the item.

The day after the tour, participants were tested on their ability to recognize the items and details about the items from the tour. First, they were given a list of names of the museum objects. The list contained names of objects that were and were not included in the tour. In this simple recognition task, people had to say whether the item was seen in the tour or whether it was a new item.

People were less able to remember the items that they took whole pictures of and were more able to remember items they took detailed pictures of and items that they only looked at. Similarly, when asked specific questions about the details of the objects (e.g., “What was this statue holding?), people were better able to remember details about the objects that they took detailed pictures of (even when the details they took pictures of were not the ones they were asked about) and were better able to remember details about objects they only viewed. They were less able to remember details about the items they took whole pictures of.

So, to recap, when given names of the items:

  • memory of seeing objects
    • photographed-whole < photographed-detail AND/OR looked at only
  • memory of object details
    • photographed-whole < photographed-detail AND/OR looked at only

After those memory tests, participants were tested again, but this time the participants were presented with pictures of the objects instead of the objects’ names. Again, people were better at remembering that they had seen the objects that they took detailed pictures of and objects they simply viewed and were worse at remembering seeing objects they took whole pictures of. Lastly, while viewing pictures of the objects, participants had to identify where in the museum they had seen objects by picking one of four rooms from a map. When participants did this, they were worst at correctly identifying the source of the objects photographed in detail and best at identifying the location of objects they only viewed.

So, to recap the second part, when given pictures of the items:

  • memory of seeing objects
    • photographed-whole < photographed-detail AND/OR looked at only
  • memory of object locations
    • photographed-detail < photographed-whole < looked at only

Okay, okay. What does this all mean? Well, for starters, each object was viewed initially for 25 seconds. Then, the ones that were photographed were theoretically looked at longer (while people were taking the pictures). As such, one might assume that people would remember those better (since they were looked at longer overall). As we see here, however, they were actually remembered less (at least the items where people photographed them in entirety). Why is this?

To answer this, the author pointed out another memory phenomenon that might explain it. In studies of “directed forgetting”, people are told to forget some items and to remember others and find that people’s memory follows these directions (i.e., they actually remember more of the things they were told to remember and remember fewer of the things they were told to forget when subsequently asked to remember everything). How does this relate? Well, the author reasons that taking a picture of something might serve as a cue that we need not bother remembering something, or a “direction to forget”. After all, we can always look at the pictures later. So, instead of storing these things in our memory, we can save that space for important things, like Tuesday’s prime-time television lineup. This only seemed to occur for the objects photographed in their entirety.

On the other hand, Henkel found that the objects that were photographed in detail were remembered just as well as the ones that were merely looked at. It is a little harder to explain this finding. The author says that this may be due to the extra cognition and focused activity that has to occur to zoom in on objects’ features while photographing them. Perhaps. I suppose this is an empirical question that future researchers could look at. Does it take more attention and cognition to take photos of parts of objects than it does to take pictures of whole objects? Possibly, especially if people are more experienced at taking holistic photos. If so, perhaps this counteracts or impedes directed forgetting.

One could also reason that people remembered objects photographed in detail as well as objects merely looked at, due to the fact that when focusing on a part of an object, we must focus on what the object is. For example, if we are told to take a picture of a warrior statue’s hand, we might still be focusing on the fact that this is a warrior we are looking at. Here is his arm, okay, now there is his hand, which happens to be holding an axe. Focus, snap! If we are trying to get the entire warrior into the picture, on the other hand, all we have to do is look for edges. Do we have a whole object in the camera? Yes? Cool. Does it matter what it was? No. Okay. Focus, snap! We’re done. This, of course, is merely my interpretation and is itself an empirical question someone could go research.

Another interesting thing Henkel found was that people’s memory for the location of the objects was affected by what condition it was viewed in. Notably, people least remembered the locations of the objects that were photographed in detail. This might be because the participants’ focus was smaller than the whole object and smaller, certainly, than the room. When photographing the whole object, however, it is easier to see how one’s attention might be tuned to the separation between the object and the space around it. Who knows- perhaps each of the four rooms was a different color? Taking a holistic picture might help one remember what separates the object from the background (say, the blue wall), whereas taking a zoomed in picture of a hand might not allow us to notice the place the object is in.

Either way, it is clear that taking photos of objects can adversely affect our memory for them. This could be especially annoying if one were to lose one’s camera or memory card before one was able to view the pictures! In the long run, however, taking a photo is probably more beneficial than not taking a picture and hoping to remember an event or scene, since we can view photos dozens of years later (assuming we can locate it), but a memory would fade with time, even if we were successful at remembering it the day after. So, advice—if you’re going to take pictures of the things you want to remember, don’t lose your camera :o)

 

Reference

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.

                  Presented results were from Experiment 2, the more comprehensive study. See original for information regarding Experiment 1.

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