I've got hundreds of photos from my recent Europe trip, split between a smartphone and a big camera. A lot are shots of the same thing -- my attempt to get the perfect lighting on a fountain or a cathedral, for example -- so that I'll have these scenes to remember always.
So I was interested to read a new study in the journal Psychological Science suggesting that the act of taking photos may actually diminish what we remember about objects being photographed.
"People just pull out their cameras," says study author Linda Henkel, researcher in the department of psychology at Fairfield University in Connecticut. "They just don't pay attention to what they're even looking at, like just capturing the photo is more important than actually being there."
At the same time, she found that zooming in on objects helps preserve people's memory of them, beyond just the detail on which they zoomed.
Henkel's father is a photographer, so she has been hanging around photos and taking photos all her life. She wanted to see if snapping photos of objects would impact people's memories of what they saw at a museum.
This study had a small sample size: 27 undergraduates participated in the first part, and 46 in the second. Both groups were mostly women. In order to strengthen the conclusions, this research would need to be replicated with a lot more people and a more balanced sex ratio, not to mention a wider range of demographic characteristics such as age.
But this is an interesting start. It underscores the point that there are different ways that the brain processes information: At an automatic level, by taking pictures, and at a more meaningful level, by focusing on a specific object or something with a personal association, said Paul D. Nussbaum, clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
It's that deeper level that enables memories to form, Nussbaum said in an e-mail.
"The more we engage our brain into processing a stimuli and the more personal that processing is, the more solid the memory formation and recall," he said.
Photos impairing memory?
For the first experiment, participants went to the Bellarmine Museum of Art. One-third of them had never been to the museum before. They visited 30 objects, spanning such media as painting, sculpture, jewelry and pottery.
One group of students was instructed to read the name of each object out loud, look at the object for 20 seconds and then take a photo of it. The other participants looked at an object for 30 seconds without taking a picture.
The following day, participants were asked to write down the names of all objects they remembered from the museum, and to indicate which they photographed. They could describe any objects whose names they could not recall.
Then, they were given a list of 30 objects and were asked to indicate which they had seen, which they had photographed and which were not on the tour. They also answered questions about details of objects, and completed a photo-recognition test of objects they may or may not have seen.
Henkel found that people performed worse on memory recognition tasks in reference objects they had photographed, compared to objects they had observed with their eyes only. Similarly, they appeared to remember fewer details about what they photographed, compared to the ones they had only seen.
"When we distract ourselves and count on the camera to remember for us, then we don't remember as many objects," she said. "We don't remember as many details about the objects."
Zooming protecting memory
The second experiment gave participants 25 seconds to view each object, in addition to extra time for photographing when that was asked of them. That meant they had extra time with objects that they had to photograph. Some were also asked to zoom in on specific parts of the objects.
The next day, it was time to test their memory: Participants had to indicate, from a list of names of art objects, which were part of the tour they had been on.
For objects they remembered, participants were asked to say whether they had photographed the object or just seen it, and answer two questions about visual aspects of the object.
Henkel found a similar effect as in the first experiment: Photographed objects tended to be associated with a decline in memory about them.
But here is the twist: Zooming in on one part of the object preserved participants' memory about that entire object, not just the part on which the camera zoomed. Accuracy was about the same, regardless of whether participants just observed objects or zoomed in on individual parts.
Henkel explains that when you zoom in on part of an object, it's drawing your visual attention there, but you're also thinking about the object as a whole.
"So what your eyes are doing, what the camera is doing, is not the same thing as what your brain is doing," Henkel said.
In other words, when you spend the extra time and attention to zoom in on something, you're likely to remember aspects of it as well as if you had just observed it without a camera.
The bigger picture
OK, so maybe it's a little more complicated than just "taking photos is bad for your memory." That's good news, since people took more than 3 billion photos in 2012, according to an estimate cited in the study, and 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook daily.
Still, says Nussbaum, "I wonder sometimes how much we may be missing when we rely so much on technological gadgets rather than using our brains."
Henkel points out that the advent of digital photography has overstepped the age-old traditions of printing photos out, putting them in scrapbooks and sitting around with your family and looking at them. That sounds a little like using a paper map.
But maybe those photo-related activities that make us take time to reminisce do enhance our memory of the experiences we have tried to photograph so diligently.
"If we're going to going to rely on that external memory device of the camera to remember for us, we've got to take that extra step and look at it," Henkel says.
Keep that in mind this holiday season when you take hundreds of photos with with friends and family.