Mind & Body

To Remember Your Vacation, Forget Your Camera

Does capturing a special moment on camera mean keeping it forever, or never really having it in the first place? Research suggests that the act of taking photos distances you from your experiences, and weakens your ability to remember them.

Stanford Memorial Church

Pics or It Didn't Happen

Researchers sent more than a hundred people to visit the visually striking Stanford Memorial Church for a recent study. Every person took a self-guided tour, which encouraged them to note certain decorative touches: bronze angels flanking the doorway, stained glass windows, sandstone carvings, all the hits. The twist was in their approaches to photography on the tour. Some took the tour without any technology. Others, armed with smartphone-like devices —not their own personal smartphones, but study-provided iPod Touches — took photos of what they saw, and were told the photos would either be for their own personal use or for posting on social media.

At the time, the cameras didn't hugely impact the participants' experiences: Across groups, they seemed to enjoy and engage with the tour roughly the same amount. But the cameras did impact their memories. Roughly a week after the tour, participants took a surprise 10-question quiz on the church's features. The people who took pictures, whether for themselves or to post on social media, scored an average of 6 out of 10 on the quiz; people without cameras averaged 7 out of 10. The difference was small but statistically significant, suggesting that taking pictures weakens our memory of the scene in front of us.

That may depend on how the pictures are taken, though. In another study, participants toured an art museum and were instructed to interact differently with different artifacts. Some, they just looked at; some, they photographed whole; with others, they used their camera's zoom function to take close-ups of significant details. Participants remembered less about the objects they'd photographed whole, but they remembered the ones they'd just looked at and the ones they zoomed in on roughly the same amount. Zooming in didn't impair their recall, and they remembered the whole object, too — not just the element inside the photo's frame.

My 12-Megapixel Brain

The basic takeaway here is that cameras impact our memories — but it's not clear exactly how or why. One theory is that cameras, when they're not used mindfully, distract us and distance us from the present moment. We split our attention between life itself and using the gadget in our hands. Since you can't form a vivid memory without paying attention, it makes sense that we'd lose track of scenes we photographed.

Another slightly different theory involves a concept known as offloading. Basically, we outsource a lot of mental chores — like remembering friends' phone numbers or mapping out driving routes — to our phones. A 2011 study showed that we're becoming mentally dependent on computers, less likely to remember information itself than how to access it online. The internet, and our gadgets, have essentially become external brains. Whether that's a good or bad thing is a matter of opinion, but it's clear that by taking a picture of something, you free your brain to forget it. It knows the scene been offloaded to your camera — your other brain.

Which means it's up to each of us to make that decision. What memories do you want in your actual, human brain, and which ones are you fine offloading? It's a personal choice, but the next time you see something you want to remember the lo-fi way, it might be worth it to put your phone down — or at least concentrate as you click.

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Hear about author Jonathan Foer's yearlong quest to improve his memory with the help of top "mental athletes" in "Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything."

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Written by Mae Rice August 7, 2018

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