PetaPixel

Taking Photographs Weakens Memories, Psychological Study Finds

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Here’s something that both photographers and the typical millennial have to look forward to in old age: Your memory is going to suck because of all the photos you took when you should have been paying attention to what was happening around you.

That’s the upshot of a new psychological study that finds you can have a good photographic record of an event or a good memory, but not both.

Dr. Linda Henkel of Fairfield University in Connecticut conducted the study, in which participants toured a campus art museum. Some were assigned to take photos; others were asked to simply remember what they saw. Subjects were tested on their memories of the museum a day later.

Those who took photos fared significantly worse at correctly identifying items from the museum, and recalled fewer details of those they did remember.

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Henkel told The Telegraph that it’s all about divided attention. “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.”

Henkel is conducting further experiments to see if photography effects memory differently based on the content of the photo — particular if the subject is in it — and how much control the photographer has over what he photographs. Previous studies have suggested that careful creation and appreciation of photographs can help boost memory. But Henkel says the proliferation of images in the digital area has weakened that effect.

“Research has suggested that the sheer volume and lack of organization of digital photos for personal memories discourages many people from accessing and reminiscing about them,” she explained to The Telegraph. “In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos, rather than just amass them.”

(via The Telegraph)


Image credit: Taking Pictures at the Metropolitan Museum, New York by Yang and Yun’s Album and taking photos of Sue the T Rex’s skull – Field Museum.jpg by opacity


 
  • Coop

    Maybe if you’re always looking through the viewfinder and chimping, but I’d disagree if you’re just talking about the way a photographer looks at the world. I kind of compose in my head and look at things I think are interesting, and in many cases it’s helped me navigate in cities I don’t know. It’s really weird seeing how other people lack in spacial awareness and bearings compared to me, like we enter a room and they basically forget where the door is or which way they’re facing. When I see interesting compositions and landmarks it creates little bookmarks in my head as to where I am.

  • http://www.sin3rgy-creative.com/ David Liang

    Exactly. This may or may not apply to digital but it certainly doesn’t apply to film. I shoot medium format film and it costs me 2.50 a shot, you better believe I think long and hard about the shot long before I take it. I can clearly recall everything from my settings to my composition to the subject matter when I’m shooting MF.

  • Coop

    Speaking as a digital photog :) Even without the camera, I’m always looking for interesting compositions and subjects

  • Carl Meyer

    What weakens memory is the lack of attention and that’s universal knowledge unless one needs to justify with fancy studies the 40,000 dollars per student they charge.

  • JReagan

    So you ask one person to go around and take photos and another person to remember everything they look at and the conclusion is that taking photos makes you forget what you’re looking at? I hope no one gave out grant money for this study. It’s a little disheartening knowing that major news outlets run articles like this nonsense as if it were some sort of scientific discovery. You could just as easily come to the conclusion that people do a better job at remembering things when you ask them to (light bulb).

  • http://www.davidsanger.com David Sanger

    This makes sense in a museum, where you want to interpret and understand artists’ vision. However I find that when I am out photographing a landscape, utterly absorbed in it, intently focused on the quality of light and atmosphere, the composition and subject matter, I remember much more afterwards that I would otherwise.

    Photography can be a source of distraction but it can also be a way of focusing the attention and seeing more.

  • kassim

    You all seem to missing the point of this study. This study is not just for photographers. It’s a study about taking photos enjoy/study it later Vs enjoy/study now. We are too dependent on technology these days. How many of you do remember 5 or more phone numbers of your friends? Bank numbers? My dad remembers all of them(of course not all, but most). Me? Save them to my cellphone. Same with picture… we capture, so we won’t forget. Even if we forget(we will), there’s a picture we can look at later. Easy right? Like muscle, memory requires exercise. By taking photos, our memory become lazy to remember the details. The good thing is, technology is dependable. So maybe we don’t need a super detailed memory after all. We can get far more information these days compared to Newton’s time. Maybe that’s the reason our brain relocating its resources to other things – information is so easy to get, why bother storing it?

  • Jonathan Maniago

    “Previous studies have suggested that careful creation and appreciation of photographs can help boost memory.”

    I wonder how different the results would be if they had another group performing several hours’ worth of editing on the pictures that they took.

  • Mike

    If you give someone and assignment like taking pictures of course they are going to focus more attention to the assignment. They will pay less attention to everything else. I bet it would be different if someone entered a museum of their own free will with the intent of enjoying and appreciating the art – without homework to do.

    To me the whole basic premise is flawed.

  • Sterling

    This idea became clear to me a few weeks ago while reading a post here about a professional photographer that had all her gear stolen while overseas. I remember her stating that by losing her memory card she had lost all her memories of her trip. How literally she meant that, I don’t know. But it isn’t a stretch to imagine someone with their eye constantly at a viewfinder might not have many memories of what she was shooting.

  • Broken Nerdtographer

    Does it really or is it a cognitive separation most non-photographers-with-a-camera have? Most people don’t see the world through their camera like we do, they’re just toying with their gizmos for the novelty and social effect at the expense of experiencing reality … and *that’s* what causes the weakening effect. I really doubt it’s the act of photography in and if itself.

    I will say this: my obsessive level of photography was instrumental in restoring my memory function after I had a stroke. Perusing my collection triggered powerful mental imagery that transported me to those places.

    My photographs are an augment to my memory, not a replacement.

  • Renato Valenzuela

    i don’t think the study had photographers in mind when they conducted it. otherwise we wouldn’t be the best story tellers.

  • Me in ME

    This research seems incomplete at best. Remembering something from a day ago is vastly different to remembering things over a longer time frame. Photo’s help me remember more detail and sequence of events. Memory is very fallible and malleable. I agree with the other posts which postulate that it’s about attention/visualisation you pay to the scene when you photograph, and what it is you are trying to capture

  • Jon Woodbury

    I disagree. I shoot both digital and film, in many formats and I don’t believe that there is a difference in my memories. Regardless of your medium, you are looking for a photo. You are looking at it as a subject, not as a piece of the world in context. It’s the same concept as shooting nudes. There’s a point, early on, where it stops being a turn-on and simply becomes a subject to light and capture. I’m not discounting the process at any point, I’ve just noticed that it doesn’t matter what I shoot with, I’m thinking lighting, f-stops, angles, and shutter speeds, not “Why does that painting make me think of my mother?” and other thoughts that create a context by which we remember that thing long term. That is what the research proved, not that we don’t really look or pay attention, just that we are not creating the connections that allow great memories. I have noticed that it is true for me. Just my 2¢.

  • jrconner

    One study. One professor who got a lot of publicity. It will take more than one study before I’m won over.

  • Christopher Hugh Hiscocks

    I’m wondering if the photographing group used cameras or mobile phones. With the latter, people get so absorbed in adding filters, cropping, tagging, uploading, that I’m surprised they saw anything off screen at all.

  • Cinekpol

    And on top of what you said – photographs are much better in conveying your memories to others. Nothing works as well for story telling as visuals – that’s something our grandparents never really could show us, and I wish they’d be able to simply take out photographs and show us our long dead great-grandparents, or their first flat, or how the city they lived in looked from their perspective – all these things are gone for them, but we on the other hand will have this privilege of sharing our current lives with our grandchildren some time in future – which is something really amazing in how photography can materialize memories that otherwise would be lost, or twisted by time.

  • Jake

    “information is so easy to get, why bother storing it?”

    Maybe because, according to numerous studies, the less you exercise your brain, the weaker it gets. Thinking, learning, studying, and remembering all help combat alzheimers and generally make you smarter. Having a computer do all your remembering for you will make your brain as weak as your body would be if you just sat on a couch all day.

  • J

    This is biased. Of course no one will remember what they saw around them if they were looking through a camera. That’s like asking people to remember what’s around them when they watch TV in an electronics store. I don’t think I’m missing out on anything when I take pictures – I’m even more focused (:op). Also, I have a better memory thanks to pictures. I wouldn’t remember a lot of things from my childhood if there were no pictures as a proof.

  • J

    I totally agree.

  • Mark Dub

    Having ADHD and no attention to detail from the start, I don’t think I have much to worry about :)

  • http://www.markwheadon.com/ Mark Wheadon

    This is something I’ve known for decades, for me at least. I’m either there (properly there, experiencing the event / the surroundings / whatever), or I’m taking photos of it / at it. Both are fun, and nowadays I choose to do one or the other depending on mood and circumstance.

  • gochugogi

    Looking back on the many museums I visited in Europe during a 3 week tour, I have little or no memories of the museums that didn’t allow photography. The places that allowed photography are etched in my mind. First, because I was trying hard to create a worthy image I spend more time at each exhibit looking around and working the angles. Second, I reviewed and edited the images many times later, reinforcing my experience. Finally, I displayed the best examples in my web galleries or in print. I took a picture of all museum exteriors that didn’t allow photography inside, so I could remember their name but I haven’t a clue what was inside…

  • NickGHK

    David Becker, you have incompletely transcribed the original story into your post, leaving out this important part:

    “… an interesting twist.

    Taking a photograph of a specific detail on the object by zooming in on it with the camera seemed to help people preserve memories of the object, not just of the part that was zoomed in on but also the part that was out of frame.”

    (I read the article as published in the Sydney Morning Herald: , credited to the Telegraph, London – as is your piece, so we saw the same source material.)

    This allowed you to include photographers in the group of people whose memories are going to be affected (not ‘effected’, by the way) by living their lives through their cameras. The original author, however, suggests just the opposite.

    After 40 years of shooting, I can state categorically that my perception and memory of details in the world around me are better, not worse, as a result of training myself to ‘see like a camera’ as well as a person. As the author of the study herself stated, “These results show how the ‘mind’s eye’ and the camera’s eye are not the same.”

    I can only conclude that you are not a photographer. You’re certainly not a journalist.

  • NickGHK

    Comment has mangled URLs. Don’t know why.

  • Eliot

    This study really doesn’t account for professional photographers much. Take any well known documentary photojournalist like Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin or Steve McCurry and listen to them speak about their work. Most photographers have a vivid memory of the moment each photograph was taken, and their mindset at the moment of taking. Some even remember the exact settings they used.
    I would argue this study doesn’t have enough evidence to back up it’s claims.

  • Larry Angier

    To the contrary, I photograph to remember and to understand. The photos for me are a starting point with which I continue a dialog when I present them. The photos and stories create a synergy; the sum of the parts is larger than their pieces.

    One should check Pedro Meyer’s work “I Photograph to Remember”. Sometimes one needs the visual cue to tell a story. Each facet is needed to tell the whole story.

    I believe part of this premise presented here is rooted in the mindless snapping of photos with little focus, simple to “bag” lots of photos aimlessly. With purpose and plan, photography can actually augment one’s memory in my experience.

  • David Vaughn

    That might be the point that the study is trying to make, but using photography as a way to make that point doesn’t seem like a great idea, mostly because it doesn’t account for people focusing on taking pictures versus focusing on taking in the museum pieces.

    Scientific studies show that people are bad at multi-tasking, so, knowing this, the scientists are already kind of starting with a bias (even if it’s unintentional.) Of course the people without cameras are going to remember more, because they only have that one task to accomplish.

    The point is clear, but the method needs work.

  • David Vaughn

    It’s not the point of the study that people are debating, it’s the method that they’re using that is being discussed.

    Studies show that people are not very good at multitasking, and the more they do the worse they are at it. So it makes sense that people without cameras would retain more information, because they only have to work on one task.

    It seems like there is an unintentional bias in the study, because of this.

  • JSinMN

    Utter nonsense! (It is from The Telegraph…)

    “Focusing” on the subject should enhance the experience, and the corresponding memory! Flawed methodology!

  • Matt

    Sorry this is just untrue. And a flawed study. It is a trap designed to prove a point. If they had told the ones photographing to also remember the works of art, then they most likely would have done the same or better than the nonpphoto group.
    This ‘study’ just wants to find issues with what others are doing.

  • José Rivera López

    JOSE FROM PUERTO RICO. I TOTALY DISAGREE. PHOTOGRAPHERS SEE WHAT OTHERS DO NOT SEE. THIS MAKES IT CLEAR THAT WE ARE AWARE OF OWER SURROUNDINGS. PHOTOGRAPHY IS THE WINDOW OF MY LIFE, THE NEVER ENDING DEVELOPING AND MASTERING OF THE HUMAN EYE, THANKS TO OWER WOUNDERFUL JESUS

  • kassim

    Well, agree with my whole heart. That’s the common wisdom, at least. But what if… we evolve? What if our brains have found a way to better use all those unused memory allocations? I guess we’ll get the answer to that a millennium or two later.

  • kassim

    Well, yes, kinda bias in some extents. They should isolate photographers group from non-photographers that take photos. The result should be different.

    I believe they didn’t do it deliberately. Hopefully.

  • Hugh Wolfe

    I totally disagree with the findings of this study. I can look at a photo I several years ago and immediately remember all kinds of little details about that particular day and place. Perhaps I’m out of the norm as far as the study is concerned, but I also do not take hundreds of photos in a day, I’m pretty selective of what I shoot.

  • Jeanette York

    Notice the cell phone photographers. True for the “immediate share” generation. My first camera was a Kodak 126 with flash cubes. I still have the pictures. Have to be in the moment for the best pics then it is the image in your memory, I share my DSLR pics after, when I relive it!

  • Jake

    Interesting idea. Have fun fulfilling your small role in evolution, being content in the knowledge that you’re sacrificing your brainpower for an experiment on your great-great-great-etc…grandchildren.

  • Larry

    I think this is the key phrase. “In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos, rather than just amass them.” Too many people (in film days) would shove their photos in a shoebox, and in digital days most people never really look at the photos they take – except to post selfies on Facebook, etc.

  • Chung Dha

    I have to say with mobile probably true especially instagramming stuff but with DSLR and taking a pro photo or if the shot is really awesome I would remember changing the setting and have to work your brain more to capture the best picture. And with a phone you just snap quickly without having to think much about it. And not notice stuff, however sometimes it would make you remember more details as you might eaten something special and took tons of details shots of it which you normally just eat and not remember how it looks, as you would look at it for one second and just start eating. Its all about the approach how you look at things if I am at a museum I would not remember it all cause there is just too much info bombing your brain but have to say there are tons of tourist who just take a picture and walk off within 5 sec without even looking at the fine details of the art to remember it. Its probably mostly about the time your take to look at things to remember it better.

  • http://www.bobcooleyphoto.com/ bob cooley

    I’m pretty sure @davidliang:disqus means any insult to digital photography. The nature of digital typically means you tend to shoot more frames than film (because there is no cost associated with shooting digital frames).

    Cost of 1000 digital frames = $0
    Cost of 1000 film frames = (cost of 28 rolls of film + developing) – $ a lot.

    I shot film for almost 15 years before moving to digital. Love digital, but I find myself overshooting.

    Its easy to fall into the trap of overshooting and paying less attention, but I agree with @disqus_XsoWtOY7Yy:disqus and others – that I spend a lot of time looking and absorbing harder BECAUSE I’m a photographer, and before I start shooting.

    All that being said, If you’ve been to a concert lately and have watched an entire room full of people ‘watching’ the show through their phone screens as they record and photography, I can see some merit in the thesis argument – but one size does not fit all, especially for actual photographers.

  • John Adkins

    I’ve discovered the exact opposite, that by recalling photos I took in a given time period, I can also recall other events that happened around that same time period.