Taking Pictures May Improve Your Memory

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Jul 4, 2017

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Since camera phones proliferated, photos have become easy and mindless — but maybe not as mindless as we think. New research shows that the act of taking photographs may actually help us remember the visual details of the experience it captures — but at the cost of other sensory details.

Previous research has suggested that taking photographs or consulting the Internet outsources human memory, freeing up cognitive resources but potentially impairing our ability to remember. Going into this study, the research team hypothesized that the effect of offloading on our ability to remember may be true for factual information, but might not apply when it comes to the experiences when people deliberately choose to photograph.

“People take photos specifically to remember these experiences, whether it’s a fun dinner with friends, a sightseeing tour, or something else,” the team argued.

Of course, the reality is that most of the photos we take will probably never get a second glance. The researchers wondered: How well do we remember the experiences we photograph if we never revisit the photos? Furthermore, does taking photographs affect memory for what we saw differently than for what we heard?

In one experiment, the researchers had 294 participants tour a real-life museum exhibit of Etruscan artifacts. The participants stashed their belongings before starting the tour, but some were allowed to keep a camera on them. Those with a camera could take a photo of anything they wanted in the exhibit and were told to take at least 10 photos. As the participants toured the exhibit, they listened to an accompanying audio guide.

At the end of the tour, they answered multiple-choice questions asking them to identify objects they had seen or complete factual statements from the audio guide.

The results showed that those who took photos had improved visual memory of the objects compared with those who didn’t have a camera. But they also remembered less auditory information than their camera-less peers. In other words, taking photographs of their experiences didn’t outsource memory so much as focus it, funneling photo-takers’ attention toward visual aspects of their experience and away from other details.

  Read more about memory on The Swaddle.

To test their hypotheses in a more controlled environment, the researchers designed a virtual art-gallery tour. Participants navigated through the gallery on screen as they would in real life and some were able to take a photo of what they saw on screen by clicking an on-screen button.

Again, participants who were able to take pictures were better at recognizing what they saw and worse at remembering what they heard, compared to those who couldn’t take pictures.

When the researchers examined visual memory for specific objects, they found that participants who were able to take pictures performed better on visual memory tasks regardless of whether the objects in question were the most or least photographed. Photo-takers even had better visual memory for aspects of the exhibit they didn’t photograph, compared with participants who weren’t able to take pictures.

“These findings suggest that having a camera changes how people approach an experience in a fundamental way,” the authors said. “Even when people don’t take a photo of a particular object, like a sculpture, but have a camera with them and the intention to take photos, they remember that sculpture better than people who did not have a camera with them.”

Pooling findings from all four studies, the researchers found that taking photographs had a reliably positive effect on people’s ability to remember visual details and a smaller but reliably negative effect on auditory memory.

Even participants who thought their photos would be deleted and those who were instructed to “mentally take a photo” showed enhanced visual memory and impaired auditory memory relative to participants who couldn’t take pictures.

The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, by Alixandra Barasch (New York University Stern School of Business), Kristin Diehl (USC Marshall School of Business), Jackie Silverman (The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania), and Gal Zauberman (Yale School of Management).

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Written By Lila Sahija

Lila reports on health and science news for The Swaddle. She has loved biology ever since she dissected her first frog in eighth grade, and now has a keen interest in examining human behavior. She also loves animals and takes at least one adventure a year through rural India. Oh, and she bakes a mean German coffee cake.

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