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Pics or It Didn't Happen? It May Be Truer Than You Realize.

Two studies reveal what really happens when we rely on our cameras.

Alejandro J. de Parga/Shutterstock
Source: Alejandro J. de Parga/Shutterstock

According to estimates from LG Electronics, more than 1 trillion photographs will be snapped this year, 90 percent of them using built-in smartphone cameras. I have not seen the statistics on the proportion of those that are selfies, but a British study asserted that one in 10 Brits aged 16-24 takes a selfie daily.

In a recent New York Times article, Kate Murphy discussed our obsession with selfies and quoted research showing that those who take a lot of them tend to have more narcissistic, psychopathic, and Machiavellian personality traits (which, of course, she did not find surprising). Similar articles have been published in The Atlantic, USA Today, and The Guardian, among other publications. With a reported 77 percent of college students now using Snapchat daily, along with Instagram (the third-most-popular social media site), Facebook, Flickr, and other photo-sharing sites, picture-taking is one of the most common smartphone activities.

I'd like to approach our obsessive picture taking from a different angle.

Although I am a professor of psychology who has studied the impact of technology on our psychological states, I am concerned about:

1. The impact of picture taking of any kind on our enjoyment

2. Memory for those same events that we capture with our smartphone cameras

In an earlier post, entitled "Is It Live, or Is It Memorex?" I wrote about my experiences watching people take excessive numbers of photos and wondered if they could truly "enjoy" the experience as much as if they had opted to look around and not focus on their world through a tiny lens. Recently, I saw Stephen Stills in concert, and I estimate that at least half the audience spent their time taking photos and videos.

I wonder: When they talked about the concert with their friends, did they actually hear the songs and enjoy them, or were they hoping to get those feelings from watching the video and looking at the pics? For my part, I just tried to appreciate the music (and sing along out of key) and enjoyed the concert enormously. I walked home humming the tune to "Suite Judy Blue Eyes" and "For What It's Worth."

What does photo-taking do to our memory of the scenes, objects, or people that we photograph? Two research projects are salient here. The first, by Betsy Sparrow and colleagues at Columbia University, identified the "Google Effect," in which our habit of Googling any required piece of information trained us to forget the information while remembering where to find it in the future. (Barring the sudden disappearance of the Internet, this may not be a bad strategy.)

Some information is needed just for a moment (e.g., "Who starred in As Good As it Gets with Jack Nicholson?") and then can be discarded. Why clutter our brains if we know we can find the information again immediately with a few smartphone taps?

Linda Henkel at Fairfield University led the second research project. In her study, students were led on a guided tour of an art museum and told to observe some objects and to photograph others. The following day, a memory test was given, and the photographed objects were not remembered as well as those simply observed. Henkel concluded:

"Despite the added time or attention required to angle the camera and adjust the lens so as to capture the best shot of the object in its entirety, the act of photographing the object appears to enable people to dismiss the object from memory, thereby relying on the external device of the camera to 'remember' for them."

Interestingly, in a second study in which students were asked to take a photo only of a specific part of the object, requiring them to focus on that part in lieu of the whole object, their memory was not impaired. Perhaps, as Henkel suggests, "[T]he additional attentional and cognitive processes engaged by this focused activity can eliminate the photo-taking-impairment effect."

Prior to reading these studies, I had noticed that when I was on vacation or just playing with the grandkids, I took lots of photos. On a recent day trip to Legoland, I took 62 photos of the two toddlers having fun on rides or just looking at the Lego creations. For a while, when I was taking so many photos of activities, I was posting some of them on Facebook, but got tired of doing that and stopped (mostly).

However, I do see that so many of my family and friends who have children post numerous images of their children engaged in an assortment of activities. I wonder whether the act of posting those photos goes one step further in enhancing memory. According to learning theory, as well as newer ideas of how the brain encodes memories, this secondary action, particularly trying to decide which of the numerous photos should be posted, should enhance memory as it did for Henkel's detail photographers.

Halfway through our Legoland day, my iPhone informed me that I was out of memory. For the rest of the day, I took the boys (ages 2 and 3) for piggyback rides (followed by a day of Ibuprofen) and thoroughly enjoyed their joyful experiences looking at the Lego exhibits. I marveled that even though they have never seen the Star Wars movies, they were enthralled by the Lego re-creations of battle scenes from the films. More important, without my taking pictures, I seemed to have more fun and seemed to enjoy the children more. I wonder if they enjoyed Grandpa more, too.

I am not advocating that we stop taking photographs, nor am I asserting that we should post them all to help us remember. Ultimately, the act of taking photos may retard our experience and, therefore, our subsequent memory of events. Perhaps the act of posting or sharing photos will enhance memories (and thus retroactively enrich our experiences)—but that remains open to empirical research.

Until then, I am going to try to limit my photo-taking at times when I want to take in the whole experience and see how that feels. My guess is that all involved will feel more enjoyment and, if the research I quoted is accurate, will be more likely to have rich memories of events.