Simply Snapping a Photo Harms Your Memories of Things, Study Finds

The simple act of capturing a photo of something impairs your memory of it, even if you don’t plan on keeping the photo. That’s what a new psychological study has found, but the reasons behind this are still unknown.

“Avid photographers celebrate the viewfinder as a means of helping us see the world anew,” the British Psychological Society writes. “But psychology research has shown that under some conditions taking a photo of something actually makes it harder to remember.”

The research was done by researchers Julia Soares and Benjamin Storm at the UCSC Memory Lab, and it builds upon previous work on the subject done by Linda Henkel, who reported the link between photos and weakened memories in 2013.

For one of their experiments, researchers asked 50 undergraduate students to look at paintings on a screen for 15 seconds. Some of the students were asked to shoot a photo of the painting with their smartphone first, others were asked to snap a photo and then delete it immediately, and the last group simply look at the paintings without a camera involved.

All the subjects were then given a multiple-choice test about the details of the paintings.

What the study found was that the students that snapped a photo performed poorer on the test than the students who didn’t, even though they spent the same amount of time looking at the painting. The poorer memory was found even in subjects who deleted their photos immediately after shooting them.

So it seems the cause of photography-related memory impairment may have less to do with knowing that we’ve stored a memory for the future, and more to do with distraction — the fact that shooting a photo causes our minds to be detached from the present moment. This also suggests that wearable, automatic lifelogging cameras like the Google Clips may allow us to preserve photo memories without harming our mental ones.

A second possibility offered by the researchers is that going through the trouble of shooting a photo gives people a false sense that they preserved a moment well, even though it was actually the camera that did so — and even though the photo may have been deleted.

Further research still needs to be done on this subject, but for now, know that you may actually remember things in your life better if you put your camera away at key moments.

Image credits: Camera photo by Tom Pumford and pictures photo by Soragrit Wongsa