One of the biggest reasons I take pictures on the regular is a fear of forgetting, but as it turns out, all those pictures may be making my memories more likely to go fuzzy. There are so many small, delicious slices of life that I’m afraid will slip away forever or go undocumented somewhere in my head if I don’t snap a quick photo. I worry that I’ll lose perspective on the way I thought and felt during whole chunks of my past, though I suppose we’re all doomed to lose memories to some degree as we get older. What I should do about this is keep more of a written record of things, but instead I resort to the quicker method of taking photos. Thanks to smartphones with cameras and their all-too-easy to access apps like Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, we’re all falling down a rabbit hole of constant capturing. You know when you go to a concert and everyone is holding their phone up to take a video instead of listening to the live music they paid for? Yeah, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t always normal.
According to Linda Henkel, a psychologist at Fairfield University, taking too many pictures (and, by association, subsequently sharing them online) can majorly screw up your memories. The best way to commit something to memory is by using deep processing, which involves attaching personal meaning to situations and making a cognitive effort to retain the information.
When we take a picture or video of something we’re experiencing, we often end up putting more effort into ensuring it’s accurately recorded than actually perceiving the moment (cue the tiny violins about technology being the bad guy). Because of this, our minds have way fewer emotional associations to help us retain the situation. Deep processing is a whole lot tougher when we’re experiencing life through a viewfinder instead of right in front of us. If we ever lose the pictures you took, we’ve lost the best record we’ve got of that moment, because our brain certainly isn’t going to do any better for us. If we never encode the memory into our mind in the first place because we didn’t pay enough attention when we were actually living it, it’s lost forever.
To test just how bad this memory gap might be, Henkel conducted an experiment that involved taking college students on a museum tour. She asked the students to take pictures of 15 works of art, and to simply view another 15. They had 30 seconds in front of each work of art, whether they were taking pictures or not. The next day, the students underwent memory tests, and remembered much fewer details about the artwork they photographed.
A key to the students’ missing memories is that they had less time to look at the photographed art because they had to hustle and take a picture in their limited timeframe, but unfortunately, the same goes for real-life situations. If you only have 30 minutes at the Grand Canyon or just a split-second to capture your kid’s solo at their ballet recital, you have to divide that time between setting up the perfect shot and attempting to soak in the moment. More often than not, you have to prioritize one over the other, and most of us would rather have a lasting photo.
To be sure, Henkel did the experiment again, but this time students had equal amounts of time to view the art as well as a few extra seconds at the end for picture-taking. In this phase of her research, she also asked the students to zoom in on one specific part of the art instead of just photographing the big picture. This made a world of difference, and students were able to remember both the specific details and the overall look of the artwork.
So, bizarre as it sounds, the trick to beating this photography-amnesia phenomenon is to zoom in on something. If you’re watching your kid’s ballet solo, zoom in on her smile or her tutu. If you’re at the Grand Canyon, focus on one part of it that stands out to you. It aids in your deep processing. Henkel also suggests looking back at the photos with family and friends to help retention, which most of us do anyway. If you, like me, love photography too much to simply pass it up during special moments (it’s half the fun!), make an extra effort to create deeper cognitive associations to the situation so it sticks in your mind. Let your feelings about the moment soak in as much as you can — and then go ahead and squeeze in a selfie if you want to.