Taking Photographs Does Something Extremely Weird To Your Memory, And No One Knows Why

Maybe don't take so many photographs if you want to remember what it was like. bogdanhoda/Shutterstock

Robin Andrews 01 Jun 2018, 15:19

Everyone’s phone has a camera in it, and you don’t need to be a professional to take fairly decent-looking but otherwise highly disposable snaps of the world around you. As highlighted by a new paper, however, this has a really strange effect on your memory.

Specifically, if you take a photograph of something, it impairs your ability to remember it or the event associated with it, even if you don’t end up keeping the photograph. Although curious, this isn’t the first to describe the phenomenon, which dates back to around 2013.

This earlier paper, by psychologist Linda Henkel of Fairfield University, found that people had a poorer recall for objects, and for the objects’ specific details, when they took photographs of them. The research was inspired by Henkel’s own experiences, recounting how we so easily and automatically take photographs of things rather than directly experience them in that moment.

In fact, for her experiment, she took students around an art gallery, a place infamous for constant snaps of the works of art. At the time, this was termed the photo-taking impairment effect, which we’ll helpfully abbreviate to PIE. It wasn’t clear why it was happening, but Henkel had a hypothesis.

She told BBC Future that we’re treating the camera as an external memory device. With the expectation that the camera is going to recall things for us, our brain stops processing in the way it otherwise would.

Of course, taking photographs helps us remember things in the long-term, but this impact on our short-term memory and our ability to remember nuances and details is nevertheless curious. PIE, however, was diminished if the photographs were zoomed in – suggesting perhaps the broader the scene, the poorer our recall may be.

Since then, several additional papers have been published on PIE, including this March’s one, published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. In it, a team from the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) decided to test Henkel’s idea, which they refer to as the “offloading hypothesis”.

They reasoned that if the photograph taken was ultimately not kept, then the memory impairment would be lessened. In order to examine this, they turned to Snapchat, described in the paper as “an ephemeral photo application”. As you all know, photos on Snapchat self-delete.

Replicating Henkel’s museum experiment (albeit a computerized version) with the app and subsequent multiple-choice memory tests, the researchers found that – contrary to expectations – the 50 Snapchat-wielding undergraduates experienced memory impairment in much the same way as those whose photographs remained.

Further experiments, involving the manual, immediate deletion of photographs on a normal camera, presented the team with similar results. It seems, then, whether or not the photographs are stored or deleted, PIE remains.

“These results suggest that explicit offloading cannot fully account for the photo-taking-impairment effect,” the team conclude. Instead, they suggest that the act of taking a photograph somehow disrupts the way our brains “engage or encode” objects.

Speculating that the subjects are experiencing a sort of “metacognitive illusion”, they wonder if the act of carefully taking a photograph may erroneously convince our brains that we have already recorded the images, via both our camera and our own memories.

At present, though, the mechanisms of PIE – much like those behind our memories themselves – remain mysterious.

[H/T: BPS Digest]

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