Photos versus memories

comments 5
Myths / Psychology

How many photos have you snapped on your phone in the last year? A lot, if you’re anything like most of us. But how well do you remember the actual places and events in the photos? Research suggests you would remember much more if you’d left your phone in your pocket and just enjoyed the moment.

When was the last time you enjoyed a sunset without taking a photo of it? Image credit Ben White via Unsplash

Photos, photos everywhere

Every day around the world, we take billions of photos. Gone are the days of carefully choosing what images to preserve on our precious 24 or 36-roll film. We can capture as many moments as we like, safely preserved digitally to help us remember people and places.

But does taking a photo of an event change how we remember it? The simple answer is yes.

In one study, students were led on a guided tour of the Ballarmine Museum of Art. They were asked to take photos of some artworks and simply observe others. The next day, researchers asked questions to find out how much the students remembered about different artworks. Not only did the students remember fewer of the artworks they had photographed, but they also didn’t remember as many of the specific details of the art they had captured on their devices.

In another study, a few hundred people went on a self-guided tour of the Stanford University Memorial Church. Some of them were instructed to take photos of the building’s features, some went in empty-handed. A week later, they were all given a surprise quiz, designed to check how much they remembered about the building. Same thing: those who had taken photos remembered significantly less than the people who simply looked around.

This phenomenon has been dubbed the photo-taking-impairment effect.

Outsourcing remembering

One explanation of this effect is cognitive offloading. We are outsourcing the act of remembering things to our photos. A well-known study published in 2011 showed if people are told a computer will save a piece of information, they are less likely to remember it themselves.

The idea is that if we know we can rely on our photos rather than our brains, there’s no need for us to mentally store the information for later. According to Professor Linda Henkel:

You’re basically saying, ‘Okay, I don’t need to think about this any further. The camera’s captured the experience.’ You don’t engage in any of the elaborative or emotional kinds of processing that really would help you remember those experiences, because you’ve outsourced it to your camera.

But researchers have also explored the role of cognitive offloading in photography more directly. In one experiment, people knowingly took photos for Snapchat (an app where photos and videos disappear soon after sharing). In another experiment, the study volunteers knew they would be asked to manually delete the photos after taking them.

But despite knowing they wouldn’t have ongoing access to the photos, these people experienced the photo-taking-impairment effect just as strongly as those who believed they would get to keep the photos.

Which leads us to think there’s more than cognitive offloading going on. Perhaps a big part of the problem is quite simple: when our attention is focused on taking photos, we’re distracted from what’s around us.

Who are you taking photos for?

Interestingly, researchers have shown our reasons for taking a photo of an experience changes how much we enjoy the experience. Rather than taking photos simply as a memory aid, these days photos are also a way of communicating with other people.

If we take photos simply for ourselves – to remember an experience – the act of taking photos doesn’t interfere with our enjoyment. But if take photos with the intention of sharing them with other people, all of a sudden we don’t enjoy ourselves as much. Why? Probably because we become self-conscious about how we’re presenting ourselves. Our attention is focused on how the photo looks, rather than on the experience itself.

Interestingly, whether we take selfies or photos without ourselves in them also affects our memory of the experience itself. Research shows that if you’re in the photo, your perspective changes – you feel more emotionally removed from the original event. It’s as though you’re looking at it through someone else’s eyes rather than experiencing it yourself.

To snap or not to snap

So what are we to do? Stop taking photos all together? Or at least stop posting them on social media? Stop taking selfies? Not necessarily, but we should probably think about how often we take photos as opposed to just being in the moment.

We could also think about the kinds of photos we take. In the art museum study, people who zoomed in and took close-up photos of the art remembered much more than people who just snapped a photo of the whole work. Presumably it took time and thought to choose the right angle for the close-up. Quite different to standing square in front of an artwork, photographing the whole thing and walking away.

Research has also shown that if we take a photo of something, our memory is biased towards what we could see, as opposed to what we could hear, or smell.

Perhaps the best plan is to snap a quick photo with no intention to share it, then put away our phones. Then we can look, listen and sniff at what’s around us. And really remember the moment.

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  1. Great article, will be showing this to my happy snapping students who are so addicted to preserving images of ppt slides 👌

    • That’s a really important point Lis. I hadn’t even thought about it in the context of teaching. Forget about taking a photo – listen and think instead!

  2. Really fascinating article. I note the question above, “When was the last time you enjoyed a sunset without taking a photo of it?” Answer: Regularly – I either can’t find my phone, it’s flat, or some other distraction, but even if those road blocks weren’t there, with sunsets, I’m never satisfied with the photograph – they never capture the vibrancy of colour/the mood – maybe because the 10 by 5cm screen isn’t as powerful as the real life space

  3. Fascinating topic.
    I usually do what you say in your last sentence; it is the best plan indeed. And sometimes I even write down what I see, listen and sniff, instead of taking a picture: that’s also a great way to be in the moment and being able to remember it later on.

    Ps. As a scientist maybe I am biased, but your shots of science are as addictive as coffee 🙂 And I LOVE coffee! My latest post is about coffee indeed – it would be an honor if you could forget your allergy for a sec and take a look at it.

    • Thanks so much for reading Cecilia! Writing stuff down sounds like an amazing way to remember experiences much more richly.

      I’m so glad you like my blog – thank you! And I’d love to read yours. I’m not that anti coffee 🤣. I wrote my own post on coffee a few years back even though I don’t drink it!

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