Can a digital photo erase your memories?

Why you should use the zoom feature on your iPhone

Posted Feb 28, 2014

(This post was coauthored by Jessica E. Bodford)


Jessica Bodford

           Take a quick glance at any Facebook page, and you’re likely to see snapshots of flaming red sunsets, homecooked jambalaya, cuddly puppies, or groups of laughing friends clinking margarita glasses on the beach. With modern technology, a high resolution memory of those precious moments is just a click away. But is it possible that by relying on digital storage, we’re in danger of erasing our own memories of those special recollections?

Recent research suggests that the answer is yes—unless you zoom in. Fairfield University’s Linda Henkel invited participants on guided tours of an art museum. During the tours, participants were asked either to observe several works of art, or to photograph those same pieces.  There were 30 artworks in all, half of which were randomly selected per participant to be photographed while the other half were observed.

The next day, participants were asked to name and answer questions about those artworks. They were then shown 40 objects (15 they’d seen, 15 they’d photographed, and 10 they’d never seen at all). Henkel found that taking a photo of an object impaired people’s ability to recall the details of the artworks, and even whether they had encountered the object at all. She suggested that this was an instance of using technology as a form of transactive memory (Sparrow, Liu, & Wegner, 2011)—that is, by taking a photo of an entire object, participants may have felt no need to actually remember what they had seen. After all, in the future, the digital photograph could serve as a backup memory.

In a second experiment, some of the participants were also asked to zoom in -- to photograph a particular section of an artwork. By focusing on only a fraction of the whole object, participants were expected to rely less on the camera as a backup memory, and to instead focus more attention on the object itself.

Again, Henkel found that taking a photo of an entire object impaired people’s memory for artwork details, and their recognition of that object. When asked to zoom in on a particular part of the whole piece, however, people’s recall did not suffer. Furthermore, by zooming in on just one part of an object, participants encoded details of the entire object more clearly, not just the part they’d zoomed in on.

So next time you yank out that iPhone for a Facebook memory of your friends acting crazy at a graduation party, be sure to focus in on the frilly pink lampshade perched on Ryan’s head.


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.

Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google effects on memory: Cognitive consequences of having information at our fingertips. Science, 333, 476-478.