“To what extent does capturing one’s life events with a camera shape what one subsequently remembers?”
In previous posts we’ve discussed photo policies in museums and the value of being allowed to capture a moment or experience for posterity. I’m a part of that club – and many of us are. In fact, if you’re like me, you’ve even snuck a few shots in areas that are clearly marked “NO PHOTOS ALLOWED” (in overbearing all caps typeface, of course) or “Photography Prohibited”.
I admit that I have been that awful visitor who breaks photography rules in the name of a keepsake photograph. I’m guilty.
Well… Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the amount of pictures we take at museums.
- I never put my phone or camera down.
We take pictures so we won’t forget, but a recent study suggests that taking pictures actually makes it harder to remember.
Henkel conducted a photography and memory experiment with undergraduate students at the Bellarmine Museum of Art, on the campus of Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. Students were given a tour of the museum and instructed to take note of certain objects (photographing or simply observing them) and the following day their memory of the tour and the objects was tested.
As it turns out, Henkel’s findings suggest that snap-happy visitors might actually do better for themselves by putting their cameras away. Like so many other areas of our lives, technology “has our back” and in so doing, becomes a crutch – used as the external harddrive/ back-up of our “real time” lives in support of our memories and experiences. Henkel calls this the “photo-taking-impairment effect”:
Despite the added time or attention required to angle the camera and adjust the lens so as to capture the best shot of the object in its entirety, the act of photographing the object appears to enable people to dismiss the object from memory, thereby relying on the external devise of the camera to “remember” for them.
Henkel’s data shows:
- Participants were less accurate in recognizing the objects they had photographed compared to those they had only observed
- Participants weren’t able to answer as many questions about the objects’ visual details for those objects they had photographed
So we should put those cameras away, right? Not necessarily. Interestingly enough, Henkel’s data also found that taking a photograph of a specific detail on an object seemed to preserve memory for the object, and not just for the part that was zoomed in on, but for the part that was out of frame, as well. Perhaps zooming is the key to memory?
Henkel says, “These results show how the ‘mind’s eye’ and the camera’s eye are not the same.”
Interested in reading more? Here are a few articles covering and discussing Hankel’s study:
- Does taking photographs ruin your memory?
- How Instagram Alters Your Memory
- Stop Taking So Many Pictures All the Time Because It’s Ruining Your Memory
- Why Taking Photos At Museums Is Hindering Your Memory
- You Don’t Need To Take Pictures Of Everything – And Taking Photos May Impede Memory
Henkel’s study will continue; currently, it doesn’t cover what happens when museum visitors revisit their photos after a long period of time. But honestly, how often do you revisit your old museum photos? How often do we reflect versus simply collect (especially in the age of digital cameras and smart phones)? And, once we check-in or share an “experience” on Facebook or post an Instagram filtered dinner plate photo – what happens next?