Thanks to the steady increase in quality of smartphone cameras, it's easier than ever to take amazing photos or video without thinking twice. If you've been to a concert in the last five years, you undoubtedly know what I mean.
But it turns out that using your camera as a new set of eyes might actually be ruining your ability to remember events on your own, rather than helping you to hold on to the good times.
You've probably heard your grandpa moan about how "kids these days" use too much newfangled technology. Grandpa does have a valid point: relying on our cameras to capture memories for us is impacting our brains, and not necessarily for the better.
Dr. Linda Henkel, a psychology professor at Fairfield University, conducted an experiment to test how taking photographs affects memory. Participants wandered through a museum, studying various paintings and sculptures in three different ways.
First, they viewed a few objects with no cameras allowed. Next, the group was instructed to view items and snap a photo of each piece. Finally, when faced with a third group of objects, participants viewed them, then took zoom photos only of specific parts of the items.
Henkel and her team then tested the participants' memory. They found that people remembered very little about the items that they photographed. Instead, they recalled more details about the museum artifacts they saw with their own eyes and nothing else. However, zooming in on the details of an object had a surprising effect, which you'll learn about later.
Henkel spoke to NPR about it: "As soon as you hit click on that camera, it's as if you've outsourced your memory. Anytime we kind of count on these external memory devices, we're taking away from the kind of mental cognitive processing that might help us actually remember that stuff on our own."
Common sense tells us that the point in snapping photos is to hang on to those moments and strengthen our memory of them. And while you might think that viewing objects through a camera lens offers you more time to observe them and enhance the experience, Henkel (in the same NPR interview) points out that many people take photographs without paying full attention to what they're looking at. She playfully suggests that many people take pics to upload to social media sites and give others a little FOMO.
So what is it about cameras that encourages us to forget? A 2002 study by L. Sahakyan and C.M. Kelley explored the phenomenon of directed forgetting, whereby subjects would forget items they had learned when told to do so. All your brain needs is a little cue, and it won't shelve certain experiences within your memory.
In this way, holding the camera up before our eyes is a cue that says, "Don't worry, you don't need to remember this. You''ll be able to see it later in a photograph."
It turns out that viewing pictures at a later time might not help us remember events accurately. Research conducted by Professor Maryanne Garry at the University of Wellington shows that seeing photographs can distort people's memories. Rather than remembering the details of the evocative artwork, natural wonder, or music festival as we experienced them, photographs prompts us to have false memories of images or experiences that often never occurred.
However, taking photos needn't tank your memory's ability in entirety. In Henkel's study, the participants' ability to recall a museum artifact was not impaired when they used their cameras to take zoom photos of specific details rather than the whole object.
So why does zooming in on a detail not disrupt the brain's ability to remember, while taking a picture of the entire object does? CNN interviewed Henkel, who explains that zooming in draws your gaze, but your brain is still at work taking in the entirety of the object, which allows you to recall the bigger picture later on—literally.
While it might easier than ever to take awesome pictures with your phone, you might want to take advantage of the zoom feature each time you snap photos to make sure you're able to recall the whole experience accurately. Or better yet, have fun, be in the moment, and ask a kind stranger to snap a pic of you next to the object you want memorialized.