“Wow, would you look at that?!?!? There’s a seal wearing an octopus as a hat, and both of them are smoking cigs! I should really take a photo of this! That way I can remember it forever!”
This is basically how I act anytime I see something even remotely eye-catching: As if it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen and I simply have to capture it digitally for posterity. But is this actually benefitting me in any real way? In particular, am I actually remembering my past better by having these photos to reflect back upon?
According to psychologists, no. In fact, taking so many photos is doing the exact opposite — it’s causing me to remember shit less.
Namely, studies have found that picture-takers are less likely to remember what they saw than non-picture-takers. In one such study, conducted in 2013 by Linda Henkel, a psychologist at Fairfield University in Connecticut, two groups were asked to visit an art museum. Half were told to photograph each object they saw, while the other half were told to simply view the art. Those who took photos remembered both fewer objects and details.
We often like to think of our brains much like we do our iPhones — that is, with a limited set of storage space. By taking photos then, in theory, we’re freeing up the storage space in our brains by storing the images on a separate device for later viewing. But that’s not really how it works.
“When you take a photo of something, you’re counting on the camera to remember for you,” Henkel told TED.com. “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.”
Photos can indeed help us remember, but the key is study and repetition. When we go through a photo album with our parents, being taught the names of ancestors we never met or the details of events our brains weren’t developed enough to remember, we absorb what we’re looking at because we’re telling our brains to commit it to memory.
But when was the last time you thoughtfully dissected your phone’s camera roll? I, for one, only do so rarely — and mainly in order to see what I can delete. And sure, going through it does spark memories of events I wouldn’t have otherwise thought about. The photos, however, aren’t necessarily helping me remember those events more vividly.
Our phones can hinder our memory more largely, too. According to a 2017 study in the Journal for the Association for Consumer Research, the mere presence of one’s phone reduces cognitive capacity. “Results from two experiments indicate that even when people are successful at maintaining sustained attention — as when avoiding the temptation to check their phones — the mere presence of these devices reduces available cognitive capacity,” the study’s abstract reads.
There is one possible caveat: A different 2017 study found that when people took photos selectively, they remembered more than those who took no photos.
In other words, the key is taking photos only when you really, truly want to. So instead of taking 587 photos at your college roommate’s wedding with an open bar, you’re probably better off putting your phone away and enjoying yourself. But a seal wearing an octopus as a hat while both of them smoke cigs? Definitely get a picture of that, and definitely send it to me.
I swear, I’ll never forget it.