Taking a photo of something impairs your memory of it, but the reasons remain largely mysterious

By Alex Fradera

Avid photographers celebrate the viewfinder as a means of helping us see the world anew. But psychology research has shown that under some conditions taking a photo of something actually makes it harder to remember. One possible reason is that we give less attention to an experience when we know that it will be safely stored in a photograph. But in a new paper in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, Julia Soares and Benjamin Storm from the University of California show that the photo-taker’s memory will suffer whether they expect to keep the photo or not.

This work aimed to replicate and extend a study by Linda Henkel that showed that taking photos of paintings in a museum could lead to poorer recall of those paintings. To make sense of this, Henkel drew on the body of research on transactive memory, which shows that longtime partners or friends distribute memory demands between them, creating a “shared” system where one will remember certain things so the other doesn’t need to. Henkel thought that in a similar fashion we may be treating the camera as a memory partner and offloading the effort onto it. Soares and Storm tested this explanation by separating photo taking from photo having.

The main experiment was a computerised version of Henkel’s museum task. Around 50 undergraduates viewed paintings one at a time onscreen. In one block, participants took a photo of each painting with a smartphone, and then had 15 seconds to look at the painting itself. In a second experimental block, the participants took a photo of each painting, deleted the photo immediately (so they knew it could never been accessed in the future), then had 15 seconds to look at the painting. Finally, in another experimental block, they took no photos and simply viewed each painting for 15 seconds. 

After a ten minute delay (during which phones were confiscated) came a multiple- choice memory test probing what the participants remembered about the various paintings. Compared to paintings that were simply viewed, performance was poorer for paintings that were photographed. Critically, this was true both for the condition where the photo was stored, and for the condition where it was deleted, meaning the participant knew they could not rely on it as a future memory partner.

This suggests that offloading may not be the cause of the memory disadvantage associated with taking photos. One alternative explanation is that using a camera forces us to disengage from properly taking in the stimulus, as our attention flows to the mechanics of operating buttons, checking brightness, exposure etc. This is something commonly reported by people as part of their photo-taking experience, and also tallies with the fact that automatic wearable cameras that store images for later don’t produce the memory impairment. However, in the current experiment, after taking pictures (or not), every participant had the same amount of time to take in the paintings without use of equipment, so any distraction effect would need to include some sort of delayed effect on memory processing even after the act of taking a photo was over.

Soares and Storm have a speculative second interpretation. They suggest that the effort involved in taking a photo – getting the framing right, ensuring the lens is in focus – leads to the sense that you’ve done a good job of encoding the object itself, even though you have been focusing more on peripheral features. So you’re not mentally slacking-off because you think the camera has it covered – but because you think you already have. It may be relevant that people who take photographs at events report afterwards feeling more immersed in the experience, which would tally more with this explanation than the disengagement-due-to-fiddling idea. In any case this is further evidence that those of us who approach exciting life events through the lenses of our electronic devices may be distancing ourselves from fuller participation.

Forget in a Flash: A Further Investigation of the Photo-Taking-Impairment Effect

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

29 thoughts on “Taking a photo of something impairs your memory of it, but the reasons remain largely mysterious”

  1. I’ve never been quite sure of what to make of these findings (mostly because of the complete lack of mechanistic or quantitative theory), but I would really like to see some follow-up work where a) people only pretend/imagine to take pictures or where they sometimes get something like an error message that the photo could not be taken but are instructed to just move on in that case and where b) their eye-movements are being tracked to see whether there is a difference in how they scan the visual scene they have or have not taken a picture of. Maybe that research exists – I don’t have time to look for it, but pointers would be appreciated!

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  2. I would think the easy answer is that when you take picture you don’t look as close because you can do it later,As opposed to just looking at it and taking in all the details. But thats just my uneducated guess.

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    1. I am a photographer. I don’t need to remember it-so I don’t even try or make an effort. I can look it up later on my CP.
      Angelika

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      1. You poor dear. There are FIVE senses. You should get to know them all!

        But seriously, I believe an under-represented reason for the loss in memory is because you focus on a single aspect (sight) and ignore other inputs. Ever notice how strong a memory can come back because of a smell? That’s because you associated that smell with a time/place/thing/event AND of course the role of the olfactory systems and the hippocampus have long been known if not fully understood. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

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    2. Steve I agree. I view my favourites- list, photo- store and recording devices as a sort of ‘memory extension’ independent of my brain. Consciously committing a picture to long term memory so you can retrieve it again, is effortful to do, especially if you might never need it. If there is a machine to help me do that at no cost to me, why wouldn’t I? Our memories are inaccurate,lacking in detail and unreliable compared to a digital image. Helen.

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  3. Yes, taking a picture of a place or thing may impair the formation of the memory of the details of the subject. But if you keep the picture, referring to it later can rejuvenate that memory, again and again. And if you keep it for decades, it may well serve as a useful reminder that you actually did visit that place once, which some of us older models are learning can wholly fade from memory.

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  4. Personally, I’d like to see how the results differ if the subject was asked to study the subject first, pick out a feature they liked about the piece of art, and then photograph what they liked or found interesting.
    This is the process I tend to use when taking photos when I travel, and while I tend to have a poor memory, I actually feel it has improved slightly since I took up photography.

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  5. I wonder how this relates to other situations where you can use a “memory partner”. For example, I generally write everything down (or type and save it) if I want to retain it. I can well imagine that when I do this I make less effort to remember because I know I can just refer to my notes. I could equally audio record conversations – I don’t generally do this but I wonder how it would effect my memory.

    Further, it is partly because I perceive my personal memory to be being weak that I have come to adopt these strategies. Perceiving my personal memory as being weak might also mean that I make less effort to remember things. Back to the study – does having a camera suggest to us that our memories are relatively poor by comparison and therefore mean that we make less effort to remember?

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  6. I find that writing something down actually improves my later recall even if I don’t look at the notes again. I’ve always thought that this is because the act of writing notes helps to consolidate memory. To see whether my theory is correct it would be interesting to compare recall in a group which has taken notes of something they have read with that of a group which has taken a copy of the text after reading it..

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