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Does Taking Pictures on Our Smartphones Have Any Effect on Our Memory?

The Effects of Snap and Go — What Does Taking Pictures on Our Phone Mean?


1.2 trillion is the number of photos we all took on our smartphones last year only! Today’s easy snap, edit, and post capabilities on any smartphone enable us to instantly capture the moment and share our experience with our friends. It can be our summer vacation, concert we’ve seen, a new gallery we visited, and more. Our pictures serve as a form of “external memory storage”, as well as a “communication channel” with our friends.

Capturing the lunch we had, our latest manicure, or our stoll with the dog; then posting it on social media with some caption, serves as a way of communicating channel with the world. Look at me and what I’m doing, and let me know what you think.

On the other hand, all the image from the latest trip overseas — museums, galleries, nature, etc — that we do not necessarily post and share with our friends, function as the outside storage for our memories.

Family Portraits

When I was a kid, there were no digital cameras, all photos were taken on film. Because of that, we only took selected pictures of what we wanted to remember. Then printed them out to store in a photo album, scrapbooks for those who were crafty. When my mom got us all together for a family photo she had one chance to do so (maybe two). Most likely the end result had one of us with their eyes closed ;).

Today, it’s so much easier to get the perfect photo. We can check how the image turned out on the spot and retake it until we are satisfied with the result. I often see moms and dads taking that same photo over and over again. When all their kids want is to be left alone and continue with their play, as it is taking so much time. It’s not always a nice scene, and I am as guilty as charged. It makes me wonder if it’s worth it.

Looking back at my childhood photos, I like the old “imperfect ” photos where my siblings and I are not staged and making funny faces…

Getting my kids to look at me and smile ending up with not always a real smile, a frustrated child forced to smile (say “princess”) and a fake smile by mom.

If this photo is meant for memories, what will the kids and their parent remember? Their fun moment or fight with us for the perfect photo?

I wish someone will once take that picture of us in that process. It would be painful for me to see but it will make me rethink that perfect photo, and maybe you too. Here is an idea for you — how about retaking a photo only once, twice max?

Social Media Picture Perfect

I just came back from the beautiful island of Bali. OMG — the people, the food, the view — there were so many things I could and would take photos of. However, I was trying to enjoy myself and not letting “taking photos” take more than relative small percentage of my experience. I must say, unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for some of the people I met along the way.

I was driving for hours to get to one of holiest places of worship in Bali, Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang located in the slope of Mount Lempuyang in Karangasem. The gates to the temple showing the volcano in between makes this place look magical. It’s the perfect spot to take a picture. It seems as I was lucky, my guide told me people will stand in line for 3 hours (yes HOURS!!!) for that perfect photo, my photo took no more than 10 minutes. The rest of the time I spent admiring the architecture and the view.

At the last couple of years this site became a very popular instagram spot. Seizing the opportunity, the temple management got a volunteer to get people in line and take their picture for a small fee, I want to assume, donation to the temple. The PERFECT Instagram picture is no longer free. Now I wonder, if when we are standing in line and sometimes even paying for that perfect social media photo, do we really remember the view?

My perfect photo took 5 minutes, but others stand in line for hours just to get it — ©Tali Orad

A Stroll at the Museum

Exploring the temple in Bali is very much similar to walking at an art gallery, seeing all the amazing art, or watching our favorite band playing. This is where we see a sea of phones pop up. Some take the photo of what they see, others take a selfie.

But why do we take those photos? Is it so we remember where we were?

Is it for our friends and family to watch later? (memory storage)

Or is it just so we have something to share on social media? (communication)

Color Run NYC 2017 — Sea of Phones, ©Tali Orad

When taking pictures at a concert or a museum we think it will help us remember the event later on. The idea makes sense, but as it turns out, snapping all those pictures might be hurting our ability to recall the event later, not helping it. Linda Henkel, a professor of psychology at Fairfield University in Connecticut, studied how taking photos impacts experience and memory.

In her study she had the students take pictures of just the objects, and then the objects with the students (selfies or someone else taking their picture). The day after she followed up with questions to see what the students remembered.

The results were clear: most students remembered fewer of what they had photographed. They also couldn’t recall as many specific details of the art they photographed. On the other hand, they remembered more of the art they had just observed and didn’t captured it on camera.

“When you take a photo of something, you’re counting on the camera to remember for you,” Prof. Henkel says. “You’re basically saying, ‘Okay, I don’t need to think about this any further. The camera’s captured the experience.’ You don’t engage in any of the elaborative or emotional kinds of processing that really would help you remember those experiences, because you’ve outsourced it to your camera.”

This is called the photo taking impairment effect, where my camera functions as a dropbox for my brain.

As for the selfies, Henkel found that if we are NOT in the photo, we will remember more about what we saw. “It turns out that it actually changes your perspective on the experience, whether you’re in a photo of it or not,”. If you are in the image, you become more removed from the original moment — it is as if you are an observer watching yourself doing something outside yourself. Whereas if you are not in the image, you return to the first person, reliving the experience through your own eyes, and you remember more. Another research adding her finding, saying when you remember an experience from a third-person perspective, i.e standing by the statue vs examining it before taking it’s picture, you have less emotional connections to the memory and therefore remember it less.

Based on that, before we take that selfie, we should walk around enjoy the moment and then capture it.

My grandma always said, “don’t let life pass by, enjoy it”. Being at the top of the mountain in the temple, taking that family portrait, snapping photos of art at the museum. By not doing so, we are letting life pass us by. We just record it on social media but not actually experiencing.

My advice — Make sure you are not just taking photos, and when you do they are not all for memories, or communicating channel. Every once in a while, leave your phone in your bag, don’t take a picture, just enjoy the moment. Let our brain store this memory and keep this moment private.

Originally published at medium.com

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