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Photographs and Memories

Make memories, not photographs

Stop taking pictures. Please. We must be living in the most thoroughly documented time ever. We take pictures and videos of everything we do. We take selfies of ourselves in front of cool things and in the mirror (selfie was the word of the year for 2013). We then post our pictures on Facebook and send pictures through phone messages. But what if we’re ruining our memories by taking pictures?

Many people document everything they do, constantly taking pictures. Cell phones are everywhere and people use them to record all events, everything small and large. The person who isn’t constantly recording everything seems like the odd person out. If you haven’t yet seen the video, I Forgot My Phone, then check it out for an example of the odd person without a cell phone. The video may be a comic exaggeration of reality, but perhaps not so much of an exaggeration. All these photos, videos, and tweets might be nice for future historians trying to understand our times, but will anyone ever really look back on all the pictures and videos after the quick ‘likes’ on Facebook?

I’m not a historian, but I’m very interested in the impact of taking all these pictures. Do those pictures actually help us remember our lives and experiences?

Memory researchers know a few things about the impact of pictures on memory, and the lessons aren’t always encouraging. First, the good news. If people review the pictures, this seems to help memory. This serves as a form of rehearsal. In families, reviewing pictures can serve as a scaffold that enables conversations about the past with children. In this way, pictures can strengthen both memory and relationships. But this only works if you review the pictures. I don’t know about you, but we’ve rarely taken the time to review many of our family pictures. Maybe later. Maybe.

Now for the bad news about taking all those photos. In an interesting recent study, Linda Henkel (2013) has investigated the impact of taking pictures on memory. You might expect that setting up the picture would improve memory. People have to think about arranging the picture and they have to focus the camera. This effortful processing should improve memory. But that isn’t what Henkel found. She had participants take a guided tour of a museum and take pictures of some exhibits, but not others. On a memory test a few days later, people performed more poorly for the items that they took pictures of. Taking a photo led to worse recollection. In some ways it’s almost as if the act of taking a pictures allows you to not remember. I have a picture, so I don’t need to remember – I can always look at the picture later (which, again, we don’t really ever do).

This is like another recent experiment in which students studied some information they knew a computer would store and some that the computer wouldn’t store (Sparrow, Lui, & Wegner, 2011). If they knew the computer would retain the information, then the students didn’t. If we have an external memory, then we don’t need to devote the effort to creating our own memories. Computer, camera, or self? If it’s stored somewhere else, then I don’t need to hold the information in memory.

But this isn’t the only bad news about taking pictures. Pictures can also replace your memory. We don’t often study pictures, but when we do, those pictures influence our memories. Photographs can be used to change and modify our memories. I’ve written about various factors that allow people to create false memories and pictures can play an important roll (Spilled punch and hot air balloons and Truthiness). Showing people a picture of themselves in a hot air balloon can lead them to create a memory of riding in a balloon – isn’t Photoshop great? But even without the research, you might have a personal understanding of a picture becoming your memory. How many of your childhood memories resemble the pictures that you parents took? Is it your memory or their picture?

Taking pictures seems to put our cognitive effort into the photograph and not our personal memory. Reviewing pictures may help memory, but may also replace memory. I don’t know the effect of all those selfies that people are taking, but I’m hoping Linda Henkel might figure this out as well. Maybe we’re changing our understanding of ourselves by constantly seeing ourselves as objects of pictures instead of experiencing ourselves as agents. Maybe we are changing our point of view in memories. Instead of seeing our memories from our original perspective, we’ll be more likely to see our memories from the external perspective of the selfie we took. This could change the way we feel about our memories as well (see my earlier blog post on point of view in memories). We’ll see eventually.

So put down the camera. Experience your life. Remember your experiences.