Are photos destroying memory?

Please Don’t Strip My Mind by Mike Lucarelli (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) https://flic.kr/p/9zP7JD

The short answer is “no”. If you can’t be bothered reading the long answer… perhaps you have been using Twitter, Facebook and Instagram too much 🙂

This post is a response to some high-profile but simplistic responses to worries about how the internet or technology might be affecting us. Amongst the slowly-emerging research into the relationship between technology and our brains / minds / thinking / social functioning, it is invariably the strong, universal claims of enhancement and impairment that are most effectively promoted to the wider public. Some of these claims are based on very thin evidence. Susan Greenfield appears to be building a strong career in this area without actually doing any research, but even where genuine research has been carried out, the media have been quick to exaggerate the results in the service of an exciting story. Linda Henkel (2014) found that participants had impaired recall and recognition for details of those museum objects that they had photographed. In a follow-up study, Julia Soares and Benjamin Storm (2018) found that this effect was present even when participants did not expect to have access to the photos. Gia Nardini and colleagues (2019) found that taking photos (with an unfamiliar sort of camera) could impair the enjoyment of “highly enjoyable experiences” (watching a nature show featuring venomous snakes and jellyfish!). There are other examples of relevant studies, but not many. Here are some headlines under which these findings were reported:

“Unplugged weddings: Stopping guests from taking photos could be good for you and them”

“Want to remember a special moment? Put down the camera”

“Put down the camera if you really want to remember what’s in front of you, study says”

“There’s Now A Scientific Reason Why You Shouldn’t Take Pictures At Gigs”

“What constant smartphone photography is doing to our memories”

“Don’t snap your memorable moments, just enjoy them says new study”

The attention that such headlines attracts fuels the status of the research, as each of these papers is then blogged and Tweeted about prolifically. The problem, as I see it, is not that this research is bad, it’s that it is far more limited than the stories in the media suggest. In these examples, the tentative conclusions of studies about engagement with museum objects and TV programmes, experienced in highly-specific, directive and contrived situations, with unfamiliar technology and no agency around how that technology should be used, are being casually applied to all kinds of photography at weddings, gigs, holidays, and everyday life. To be fair, the news stories do mention some caveats (e.g. acknowledging that *looking* at the photos you’ve taken might help you to remember!), but these are quite far down the page, and much of the damage is done in the heading.

In my own research, which began in 2011, I started out by asking similar kinds of questions to the ones that seem to have underpinned these studies, e.g. how is memory affected by increasingly ubiquitous digital photography? However, I took an interdisciplinary approach, reading literature not only from psychology, but also philosophy, media studies, human computer interaction, and more. I soon adjusted my expectations, suspecting that there might not be a simple answer to my question (by the end, that question didn’t even make sense to me).

The perceived complexity evolved by degrees. Early on, for example, I thought that episodic memory (the subjective “reliving” of experience) might degrade while semantic memory (facts and details about the world) was enhanced by the presence of many photographs. I then moved from ideas of degradation to a conception of balance – as I put it in an early book chapter, the availability of many personal photographs might shift the overall balance of memory from episodic towards semantic. This notion then gave way as I began to wonder: does it matter if I took the photographs myself or if someone else took them? If, as was often the case, I saw myself taking the same photograph as someone else had just taken, would it have mattered if, instead, I’d asked that person to send me their version? Would it matter how often I looked at my photographs? What I did with them? Whether I labelled them? Whether I sent them to other people? Whether I talked about them? Was talking about photos through a traditional, synchronous conversation the same as talking about them via Facebook comments, dispersed over months and years? Did the way that I thought and felt about different kinds of photos (e.g. digital vs analogue) influence how my memory works in relation to them? Did my beliefs about photography and memory change the way that I paid attention to scenes, whether I photographed them or not? How did the photographs I already had influence what photographs I might decide to take in the future? Did my skills of composition and image appreciation matter to how I understood events, or to how I looked back at photographs?

As I asked myself these questions, I realised that the answer to my original research question of how photography affects memory was likely to begin with “it depends”. The conclusion to my thesis was going to involve the dreaded “more research is needed”. At the time, this seemed like a bit of a bummer. However, I now recognise that “more research is needed” is actually a very important part of the conclusion to this kind of research, if not all research. The studies cited at the beginning of this post are just steps on a journey; mere snapshots in the great and expanding archive of research into the relationship between thinking and our social and material encounters with technology and media. Unsurprisingly, my research culminated in a paper calling for more research, of the kind that pays attention to the diverse and subtle ways that we engage in photographic practices in everyday life. It is a paper that raises more questions than answers, and so it is unlikely to attract much media attention. If you are interested, you can find it here:

For what it’s worth, the not very exciting headline of my research so far is that photographs are not destroying memory in any straightforward sense. Instead, photographic practices are entangled in how we remember, in ways that are complex, contextual, and cultural. Oh, and much, much more research – based on this premise of contextual complexity – is needed.

References

  • Henkel, L. (2014). Point-and-shoot memories: the influence of taking photos on memory for a museum tour. Psychological Science25(2): 396–402.
  • Nardini, G., Lutz, R. J., & LeBoeuf, R. A. (2019). How and when taking pictures undermines the enjoyment of experiences. Psychology and Marketing, 1-10.
  • Soares, J. & Storm, B. (2018). Forget in a flash: a further investigation of the photo-taking-impairment effect. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition7: 154–160.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *