It may seem counter-intuitive, especially in today's "take and share pictures of everything" society, but research published in the journal Psychological Science points out that if you really want to commit something to memory, you're better off looking and focusing on it -- not taking a picture for later review.
Photo by epsos.de.
Essentially, the bottom line is that we commit things to memory better when we give singular focus to the thing we want to remember. Taking out our phone or camera and trying to take a picture fractures that focus, and makes it more difficult for our brains to cement the memory. Dr Linda Henkel of Fairfield University set up an experiment at an art museum that went something like this:
Undergraduates were led on a tour around the museum and were asked to take note of certain objects, either by photographing them or by simply observing them. The next day, their memory for the objects was tested. The data showed that participants were less accurate in recognising the objects they had photographed compared to those they had only observed. Furthermore, they weren't able to answer as many questions about the objects' visual details for those objects they had photographed.
Henkel calls this the "photo-taking impairment effect":
"When people rely on technology to remember for them -- counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves -- it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences," she explains.
A second study replicated these findings, but it also presented an interesting twist: Taking a photograph of a specific detail on the object by zooming in on it with the camera seemed to preserve memory for the object, not just for the part that was zoomed in on but also for the part that was out of frame.
Henkel went on to explain that the study was carefully controlled to make sure people took pictures of specific things and not others so their memory could be accurately tested later.
This still raises the question -- if someone takes a picture of something they want to remember, and then reviews the photo later, does that improve memory? Good news: Research says yes -- if you actually bother to review your photos. Since so many of us snap photos and upload them to Dropbox or Instagram and never go back and look over them, those things we're trying to remember quickly fade:
"Research has suggested that the sheer volume and lack of organisation of digital photos for personal memories discourages many people from accessing and reminiscing about them," says Henkel. "In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos, rather than just amass them."
The solution? Focus on the thing you want to remember, be in the moment, and give it your singular focus. If you must take pictures, make sure to go over them later and bask in the memory, don't just let them slip into your digital stockpile.
No Pictures, Please: Taking Photos May Impede Memory of Museum Tour [Association for Psychological Science via Fast Company]