Day in the Life

Why taking photos can actually make your memory worse

So you're all taking photos for us on Friday. Thanks — but will we accidentally destroy our collective memory of Oct. 17?

'What's happening is the outsourcing of our memory,' says professor Linda Henkel

Will this image of a scene-stealing squirrel from Banff be the only thing this couple remembers from this trip?

So you're all taking photos for us on Friday as part of A Day in the life of Nova Scotia. Thanks — but will we accidentally destroy our collective memory of Oct. 17?

Will those thousands of flashbulbs create a digital supernova, exploding the day and leaving us with a collective black hole in our memory?

You see, a recent study found that taking photos can actually make your memory worse. We called its author to find out how it happens and, more importantly, what you should do to take photos and keep memories.

Linda Henkel, a professor of psychology at Fairfield University in Connecticut, did the study and called it Point and Shoot Memories.

She sent people on a guided tour of 30 objects in a museum. For 15, they just looked; for the other 15, they also took a photograph. They spent equal amounts of time at each stop.

The surprising results came when she tested her subjects on the objects.

"It turned out they remembered fewer objects and they remembered fewer details about the objects, if they had taken a picture of it," she said.

Henkel calls it the "photo-taking impairment effect."

"I think what's happening is the outsourcing of our memory. When we count on some external device to remember for us, we don't have to continue thinking about the object. We don't have to continue processing the object. We kind of dismiss it from our mind."

Basically, our brain hears, "Point, shoot and mentally delete."

Focus on the details

So are we about to obliterate Oct. 17, 2014?

"I don’t think so," Henkel laughs.

"I think people are going to be so selective of what they take a photo of, because they're just taking the one photo and uploading it. They're really going to put a lot of thought and energy into it, and talking about it and sharing it."

Her study, and other research, points to two solutions to the problems of relying on your camera's photographic memory. 

First, focus on the details. When her subjects took a photo of a statue's foot, for example, it improved their memory.

"The beautiful part about it was it made both parts of the object more memorable," Henkel said, speaking of both the detail and the whole. 

That finding illuminates the differences between digital and human memories.

"A camera is a very static image of that moment," Henkel said. "The human being is looking with their eyes at one part of the statue, but they're thinking about the statue as a whole."

So don't take a photo of your whole dog — zoom in on her eyes, or her feet in the leaves. 

Photos as memory prompts

Second, use photos as memory prompts, not memory dumps. 

Henkel has an enchanting newborn grandson.

"I've already out-used all the storage space on my camera phone," she admits. "I've taken 600 photos in seven weeks — he's so cute!"

But no baby possesses sufficient cuteness to drive you, four years later, to review 17,828 photos and think about all those moments. 

Instead, pick the best pics regularly, name them with details of the moment and save them in orderly folders. Heck, you could even print them off on trees slices in an old-school photo album.

Also, over-shooting a moment means that instead of seeing his adoring grandmother, her grandson sees a camera. 

So Henkel takes her photos and then puts the camera aside. Later, she culls the blurry or repetitive shots, names the good ones, organizes them and prints the best off so she can sit with her grandson and remember the moment. 

And talks about them — like we'll all do with A Day in the Life of Nova Scotia: 2014.

About the Author

Jon Tattrie

Reporter

Jon Tattrie is a journalist and the author of two novels and five non-fiction books. He won the RTDNA's 2015 Adrienne Clarkson Award. Find him at www.jontattrie.ca