Taking Pictures Doesn't Help Remember
December 9, 2013

Taking Pictures Can Hurt, Not Help Your Memory

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Next time you go to a museum – look around and notice how many people are taking pictures of the exhibits. Ironically, the act of taking a picture, perhaps as a memento, actually ruins the ability to later recall the object, according to a new study.

"People so often whip out their cameras almost mindlessly to capture a moment, to the point that they are missing what is happening right in front of them," said study researcher Linda A. Henkel, a psychologist from Fairfield University.

In the study, Henkel had participants tour the Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University and take note of certain items, either by photographing them or just looking at them. The next day, participants’ memories for the objects were tested.

"This study was carefully controlled, so participants were directed to take pictures of particular objects and not others," Henkel noted.

The Fairfield psychologist found that participants had less accurate recollections the objects they had taken pictures of compared to those they had only spent time observing. Participants were also less accurate when describing visual details of those objects they had photographed.

Henkel described her findings, which were published in the journal Psychological Science, as evidence of a “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 explained.

In a second part of the study, Henkel had participants photograph an explicit detail on the objects by zooming in on it with the camera. She found that this seemed to enhance the ability to recall the object – not just the explicit detail, but also for the part that was out of the frame.

"These results show how the 'mind's eye' and the camera's eye are not the same," Henkel said.

The Fairfield psychologist said she is currently studying whether the content of a photo affects later memory. She said she is also curious if consciously composing a photograph might influence recall ability.

Henkel noted that the act of taking a photograph is often able to later stir memories of past events.

“In everyday life people take photos of things that are important to them, that are meaningful, that they want to remember,” she said.

However, many people store away these pictures on hard drive or in albums – only to forget about them, Henkel said.

"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 said. "In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos, rather than just amass them."

With the ubiquitous nature of camera phones, many groups and organizations have enacted rules to guard privacy or maintain rights protections. The International Olympics Committee recently announced that reporters at the 2014 Winter Games will be forbidden to posti cell phone-captured video to social media, citing the protection of the sales of broadcasting rights. Any reporter found posting video will immediately have their press credentials revoked.