These days, we are a nation of photographers dedicated to recording the minutiae of our lives, from what we ate for lunch to videos of our favorite band performing live (that we will never view again). Every cell phone has a professional-level camera, hours are dedicated to curating the perfect Instagram life, and who hasn’t used the phrase “no photo, didn’t happen”?
Well, a study published in the journal Psychological Science has revealed that taking photographs of our experiences boosts our visual memory, but appears to impair our memory of what we heard.
The researchers expanded on previous research that suggests taking photos or having a quick Google frees up cognitive resources by essentially “outsourcing” our memory, but it doesn’t bode well for actually retaining factual information.
They wanted to know if this held true when it came to experiences we deliberately choose to photograph and record. If we “outsource” our memory when taking photos, and never revisit them, does this affect the way we remember those experiences? Does taking photos affect our memory differently from what we see to what we hear?
They discovered that taking photos shifts attention towards the visual aspects, which stays in our memory better, but detracts from the auditory component of an experience.
"Our research is novel because it shows that photo-taking itself improves memory for visual aspects of an experience but can hurt memory for nonvisual aspects, like auditory details," the authors said.
To find this out, they conducted both field and lab experiments. In one such test, they took 294 participants to a museum. Some people had cameras on them and were told they could take photos of anything they liked – but they had to take at least 10 photos – while others had no camera. All of them listened to an audio commentary as they went around an exhibition.
Afterwards, they were given a multiple choice questionnaire asking them to identify objects in the exhibition or complete factual statements they heard on the audio commentary.
The results showed that those who had taken photos recognized more of the objects than those without cameras, but remembered much less of what they’d heard, suggesting that taking photos, even if you don’t revisit them, does boost visual memory.
When the researchers recreated this test in lab conditions using virtual reality, they found that those who took photos (screenshots) remembered even the parts of the exhibit that they didn't photograph better than those who didn’t take photos.
"These findings suggest that having a camera changes how people approach an experience in a fundamental way," the authors said. Photographing our experiences, rather than outsourcing our memory, focuses our attention on the visual aspects of experiences, possibly at the expense of others.