Digital Cameras Are Messing With Your Memory

New research finds a "photo-taking-impairment effect": when people take a picture, they forget the moment.

Socrates once feared that technology would corrupt human memory. Quaint as it sounds today, he was worried about a form of communication called writing. The more easily people could access something in a document, he reasoned, the less inclined they'd be to remember it.

The great philosopher's point rings as true in the digital age as it did in ancient Greece. Recent tests have found that people who think a computer will save their information recall much less of it than those led to believe the machine will delete it. A difficult trivia question is as likely to bring Google to mind as it is the answer.

Fairfield University psychologist Linda Henkel believes something similar may be happening with digital photography. The more easily people can take and access pictures, she says, the less inclined they may be to remember the moment itself. "You're just kind of mentally discounting it--thinking, 'Well, the camera's got it,'" Henkel tells Co.Design.

[Image: Flickr via Flickr user Steve Rhodes]

Henkel draws that conclusion from a study she recently conducted at the Bellarmine Museum of Art on Fairfield's campus. In one of her experiments, she gave test participants a digital camera and an itinerary of museum objects to view. Some of the objects were simply observed. Some were photographed whole with the digital camera. Some were photographed with explicit instructions to zoom in on a detail.

The following day, Henkel gathered the participants and tested their memories about the museum experience. She showed them the names (or pictures) of all the objects they'd seen, as well as 10 they hadn't, and asked them whether or not they'd gone up to the item, and if so whether they'd simply observed it or photographed it. For each item they said they saw, she also questioned them about a detail.

Socrates would have enjoyed the results. Test participants recognized fewer objects they'd photographed whole than those they'd observed on their museum tour (from both the list of names and the roster of pictures). They were also much less accurate in recalling visual details of museum objects they'd photographed whole, compared with those they'd only observed. Simply put, they took the picture and missed the moment.

Image: Old Faithful via Flickr user David Vaakin

In a paper set for publication in Psychological Science, Henkel calls her finding the "photo-taking-impairment effect." When people know a camera will document an object or event, they may well dismiss it from their own mind. Digital cameras seem particularly conducive to the effect since it's far easier (and cheaper) to take and store digital pictures than it is to develop film or compile photo albums.

In other words, the facility of digital photography may well come at the cost of cognitive engagement. "I think it's about the mindlessness with which people approach the task," says Henkel. "If you treat acquiring the photograph as if it's just something to get off your checklist--been there, done that, check--that's what's going to create this dismiss-this-from-memory thing."

The experiment also revealed an important limitation of the photo-taking-impairment effect. When test participants zoomed in on an object, they remembered it as vividly as those objects they had observed (and, of course, far better than the ones they'd photographed whole). What's more, participants even remembered details about the object that they hadn't zoomed in on.

Image: Cameras waiting via Flickr user Jacek NL

Henkel suspects that zooming triggered a completely different cognitive process. While the rote act of photographing a whole object led a person to dismiss it from memory, the slight uptick in focus required to zoom in on a detail caused the same person to absorb the scene as if there were no camera present at all. The brief mental climb from click to zoom-click was enough to overcome the impairment effect.

Whether or not the same problem occurs with a smartphone camera is an open question. Henkel believes it probably does, since phones use digital photography, too. Then again, research suggests that touch screens cause people to feel a heightened sense of ownership toward whatever they're viewing. This tactile effect could perhaps counteract the impairment effect, much in the way zooming in does.

Of course, an impaired memory for photographs doesn't have to be a bad thing at all. Looking at photographs later on does help recover memories of the moments in question, just as a quick web search helps recover information. In that sense, the transfer system is working as expected. Socrates might have frowned on shifting knowledge into documents, but no less a mind than Einstein once advised people not to memorize what they could easily look up in books.

The larger problem, says Henkel, occurs when people amass so many digital photographs that organizing them becomes a prohibitive task. So not only is their memory for the moment impaired, but they've lost the ability to recover it, too. "I think if people were more mindfully photographing things, if maybe they were making fewer photos with more choice and interaction with these things, that's where you'd not see the photos impairing you," she says. "And obviously looking at the photos afterward. Reminiscing about them--using them as a retrieval."

[Image: Flickr via Flickr user Steve Rhodes]

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11 Comments

  • Zachary Detton

    Usually when I go to concerts I limit myself to how many pictures I take and how many videos I record. I want to experience the concert, not watch it on a screen. Considering that taking a photo sort of diminishes the memory for the viewer, I wonder if that would foster apathy. When you ask someone about something and their response is "meh" is it because they relegated those memories to their SD card?

  • AldoC

    Back in the film-camera days, I remember taking a photograph of Richard Nixon when he came through a nearby town on his reelection campaign. I realized afterwards that my strongest memory of the event was of seeing the photograph and not the person.

    Years later, on taking pictures of a solar eclipse in Mexico, I made certain that I took time to concentrate on the event with my own eyes.

  • Wayfaring Wanderer

    As a photographer, I definitely agree with what you've outlined in this article. Before I started doing it professionally, I took photos of anything and everything; my camera went everywhere with me. Once I began to do it for pay, I stopped taking as many pictures during my own time. While I believe that it has hindered my creativity to some extent, I feel as though not being tethered to my camera constantly allows me to really "be in the moment."

    I used to be one of those photographers that argued that, "Taking pictures DOES allow me to 'be in the moment,' but I've since learned that that's not entirely true." I like the idea that zooming in and honing in on your subject will help you to remember the moment much more vividly; I definitely feel like that's true because when I am very focused on what I'm shooting, I am enveloped by the creation of that image.

    The reason why I love photography, and always will, is because photographs do possess the capability of bringing you back to a moment in time that has since faded from your faulty memory.

  • peterblaise

    .
    Duh!

    The funny thing about this whole story is that it's easy to accurately paraphrase it as something like this:

    "... making more memories reduces photographer's memories ..."

    ... or something stupid like that.

    Silly.

    Photography is never one thing -- it is a record, it is entertainment, it is art, it is creativity, it is therapy, it is testimony, it is evidence, it is a warning not to misbehave, it is skill, it is science, it reveals the invisible microscopic and the vastly distant, it slows time or speeds up time, and so on, providing memories unavailable by any other means.

    Photography by definition expands individual memory and the memory of us all.
    .

  • CM

    I agree with tim here. I have done video work at sporting events and I tend to find at times I have no idea what the score is or who is even winning.

  • peterblaise

    .
    So?

    You are making a record, and that takes concentration -- why not respect that and do it well, and bring back something memorable?
    .

  • CM

    the point i am agreeing with is that when you are concentrating on something like taking a picture, you aren't concentrating as much on what your taking a picture of, memorable or not.

  • peterblaise

    .

    You mean, "... the point i am agreeing with is that when [I am] concentrating on something like taking a picture, [I am not] concentrating as much on what [I am] taking a picture of, memorable or not ..."

    Me?

    I have no problem remembering what I see because I choose my camera to be transparent so I can look at my subject, not at my camera.

    And I think the study was flawed in it's arbitrary limitations on the definitions and valuations of photography and memory and observation and awareness.

    Other than that, it's been a provocative discussion builder, but less so than even "Nikon is better than Canon" crap threads!

    Oh well.

    We're on our own -- pseudo-science researchers have no clue about a life of photography in the field.
    .

  • Tim W

    You're distracted when you take a picture. You are thinking about steadying the camera, framing the picture, ambient light - everything but what you are taking a picture of.

  • peterblaise

    .
    YOU may be distracted, not me.

    Selecting a camera that disappears in one's hand and is transparent in front of one's eye is the challenge, or you can just buy whatever has big advertising, discounts, and is pushed by the store clerk, and accept the compromise.

    Framing the picture, assessing light are paying attention to the scene with heightened awareness and creativity, not a distraction.

    Does anyone think, "... journalism is bad for journalists because they are writing about the thing they could be observing ..."?!?

    Why do they think "... it's the camera ..." rather than acknowledge that "... it's the person ..."?
    .