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We’re more observant without the camera, study suggests

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Trying to capture any kind of experience through a camera lens — as millions of people do every day — may be hindering rather than helping to build meaningful memories.

Next time you go to the Walker Art Center, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts or one of Minnesota’s other great art museums, leave your camera at home.

You may remember much more about the artwork.

At least, that’s what the findings from a new study suggest.

In fact, the findings also suggest that trying to capture any kind of experience through a camera lens — as millions of people do every day — may be hindering rather than helping to build meaningful memories.

“People so often whip out their cameras almost mindlessly to capture a moment, to the point that they are missing what is happening right in front of them,” said the study’s author, Fairfield University psychologist Linda Henkel, in a press statement released with the study.

Two experiments

The study, published Monday in the journal Psychological Science, consisted of two related experiments. Both took place at Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Museum of Art.

For the first experiment, 27 undergraduates (6 men, 21 women) were taken on a tour of the museum. None had been to the museum in recent weeks, and one-third had never been there at all.

The students were asked to take special note of 30 objects in the museum (paintings, sculptures, pottery, tools, jewels and mosaics), either by photographing the objects or by simply observing them. The following day, they were tested on their memory of those objects.

Henkel found that the students were significantly less accurate in their recognition of the artworks they had photographed than of those they had looked at without the camera. With the photographed artwork, the students were also less able to correctly answer questions about visual details (such as: What did the Tang Dynasty warrior have in his hands? A shield? A spear? His helmet? Nothing?).

The study showed “no memory advantage for photographed objects and, in fact, showed a photo-taking-impairment effect,” writes Henkel.

Henkel is not sure what causes this effect, but she has a hypothesis.

“Taking a photo of the object may have diverted participants’ attention from the object to the camera,” she says, “thereby reducing memory for the object, even though the visual focus of the camera and the resulting photo obviously were about the object.”

Zooming in makes a difference

For the second experiment, 46 undergraduate students (10 men, 36 women) were again taken on a tour of the museum. This time, they were shown 27 art objects. They were instructed to photograph nine of the objects as a whole and nine by zooming in on a specific part of the artwork. The remaining nine objects were to be observed without the camera.

Interestingly, when tested on the following day, the students were able to remember the objects that they had zoomed in on with the camera as accurately as those they had observed only with their eyes. And they remembered not just the parts that had been the focus of their photos. They also remembered elements of the artwork that were outside the framed element in each photo.

This finding suggests, says Henkel, that the camera’s “eye” is not the “mind’s eye.”

Limitations and implications

This was a small study, and involved a very homogenous population. Furthermore, it’s not at all clear whether the study’s findings would hold up in other surroundings and situations. Figuring that out will take more research.

But, as Henkel notes, “Given the ubiquity of digital photography in people’s lives, understanding how memory is affected by the act of taking photographs is a meaningful avenue of research.”

Other studies have found, says Henkel, that reviewing photographs helps us remember events. But we have to spend time actually going back and looking at the photos. And we’re much less likely to do that today than we were in the past.

“The sheer volume and lack of organization of digital photos for personal memories discourages many people from accessing and reminiscing about them,” writes Henkel. “In addition, despite the ease of social sharing of photos today, families spend less time together in person sharing and reviewing their digital photos than they did with physical prints and photo albums in the past.”

Something to think about this holiday season?

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