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Want to remember a special moment? Put down the camera

A recent study found that when people take photographs they tend to remember less about the experience than when they keep their camera tucked away.

The author of one study speculated that the finding might be explained by “cognitive offloading” — the process of relying on an external tool, such as a notepad, a computer or, in this case, a camera, to store information for future recall.
Photo by Noiseporn on Unsplash

If you really want to remember those magical moments from your vacation this summer — a spectacular sunset, a momentous meal, a historical landmark — you may want to put down the camera.

A study published recently in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition found that when people take photographs they tend to remember less about the experience than when they keep their camera tucked away.

This finding will be counterintuitive for many people. Most of us think that taking photos will help us recall objects and experiences at a later date with greater clarity. But that does not seem to always be the case, as this new study — and earlier ones — have found.

A 2013 study reported, for example, that people who looked at and photographed paintings in a museum remembered far less about the paintings than when they observed the works of art only through the lenses of their own eyes.

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The author of that study speculated that the finding might be explained by “cognitive offloading” — the process of relying on an external tool, such as a notepad, a computer or, in this case, a camera, to store information for future recall. Because we assume that the tool will safely remember the information for us, we don’t pay as much attention to whatever it is we’re looking at or experiencing.

There’s another possible explanation, however, for the study’s findings: attentional disengagement. This hypothesis proposes that using a recording device like a camera disengages us from the moment, thus causing us to encode the experience into our memory with less detail or depth than we would have otherwise.

Two experiments

The authors of the current study, psychologists Benjamin Storm and Julia Soares of the University of California, Santa Cruz, set out to replicate and expand on that 2013 study — and to test the cognitive offloading hypothesis.

They asked 42 undergraduate students to look at slides of 15 paintings displayed one at a time on a computer screen. The paintings were divided into three groups, with five paintings in each group. The students were asked to take a photo of each painting in the first group, after which they had 15 seconds to look at the painting itself. The students were then instructed to do the same thing with the second group of paintings, although this time they were told the photo would go to Snapchat (a messaging app that displays photos for only a short time before they disappear). With the third group of paintings, the students were told just to view each painting for 15 seconds. 

After a 10-minute interval (during which the phones were taken away), the students were given a multiple-choice test with 30 questions about visual details in the paintings (two questions for each painting). Each question clearly referenced the painting by title and artist (“What was the instructor cutting with scissors in The Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt?”) The correct answer (in this case, the cadaver’s armwas given along with three incorrect answers. 

When Storm and Soares analyzed those reponses, they found that students correctly answered significantly fewer questions about the paintings for which they took photos — whether they saved the photos in a permanent form or not. 

The experiment was then repeated with a different group of 51 students. This time, however, the students were instructed to delete each of the five photos of the paintings in the second group rather than posting the photos temporarily to Snapchat. This was done to make sure that the participants knew the photos would not be around to review later.  

The results were similar: The students remembered fewer details of the paintings when a camera was involved, whether or not they knew the photo would be saved.

The results were therefore inconsistent with the offloading hypothesis. “If taking photos causes people to forget because they think of the camera as a prosthetic memory device onto which they can offload memory, then making the camera less reliable (or entirely unreliable in the case of the Snapchat and Delete conditions) should have eliminated or significantly reduced the extent to which memory was impaired,” Storm and Soares explain.

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The results are more consistent with the disengagement hypothesis, say the two researchers — “the idea that taking photos causes participants to limit or disengage their attention when encoding an experience, an effect that is assumed to take place regardless of whether participants believe the photos are being saved.”

Caveats and cautionary advice

The study comes with plenty of caveats, of course. To begin with, it was relatively small and involved similarly aged students from a single university. The results might not be applicable to more demographically diverse groups of people. In addition, the study’s participants were told what to photograph. In real-life situations, when people are photographing scenes or objects that interest them personally, their memories about the experience might be stronger.

“So, where do our findings leave snap-happy photographers and social media addicts documenting their daily lives?” ask Storm and Soares. Here is their answer:

Although it remains to be seen whether the present results generalize to other types of conditions, they do suggest that taking photos can impair a person’s ability to remember the details of the experiences being photographed, an effect that appears to linger even after the camera has been put down. Of course, one of the benefits of taking photos is that the photo-taker can look back at the photos later, thus arguable providing a much more powerful opportunity to transactively remember the details of an experience than would be possible through observation alone. This benefit requires that participants actually take the time to successfully locate and view their photos, however, something which may be done far less frequently than one would imagine. 

It is also worth noting that photos can only capture a portion of an experience and that photographic review may therefore not always help participants recover the uncaptured portions of an experience. In this way [author] Russell Banks may not have been exaggerating when he wrote that to photograph an experience was “somehow to reduce and domesticate [it] and ultimately to kill it.” 

To the extent that taking a photo does affect memory for an experience, whatever aspect of that experience that is impaired could remain impaired. For a truly memorable experience, therefore, it might sometimes be best to put the camera away.

FMI: You can read the study in full at the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition website.