Are photos destroying memory?

Please Don’t Strip My Mind by Mike Lucarelli (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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 has made a number of strong claims 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.


  • 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.

Passed, no corrections!

On Tuesday I had my viva and passed with no corrections. Examiners John Sutton, David Frohlich and Chris Speed were very kind and I actually enjoyed the conversation and experience very much. A great end to the PhD journey.

Interweaving presentation of work in progress

My presentation from 2nd September, 2015 at the “Interweaving: a tapestry of educational and multidisciplinary research in an international context” conference at the Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh can be found here:

This was a presentation of work in progress, given at the half-way point of data collection in my second study. I’ve embedded the Introduction below to give an idea of what it covered.


How does photography change remembering? A reflective workshop

Today I went out to the Uni of Edinburgh Veterinary School to run a session with the staff there, the brief being to get people to think about something a bit outside their normal routine. Thanks to Jessie Paterson and Sharon Boyd for setting this up.

I had asked everyone to bring a photo from a year or two ago to the session. It could be in print, on a smartphone or an iPad, as long as they could access it. During the session, each of the 8 participants then told a story relating to the event depicted in the photo which proved to be an interesting exercise in itself. There were rich sensory experiences involving food, music and emotions. There were connections between the time the photo was taken and much earlier experiences. There were also memories of important family bonding experiences. Continue reading “How does photography change remembering? A reflective workshop”

IT Futures Conference 2013

Thursday 12th December was the University of Edinburgh IT Futures Conference. I was privileged to speak alongside the Principal, Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, as well as Vice Principal Jeff Haywood, Sci-Fi novelist and technology guru Cory Doctorow, Aleks Krotoski (who runs the Digital Human show on BBC radio), Chris Speed (Chair in Design Informatics at the Uni of Edinburgh) and James Fleck (Editor-in-Chief of the journal Technology Analysis and Strategic Management).

Photo of me speaking about reflection at the Uni of Edinburgh's IT Futures Conference

Speaking about reflection at the Uni of Edinburgh’s IT Futures Conference. Image by Nicola Osborne

The conference theme was disruption. My talk, called “Digital disruption and blended memory: selectivity, creativity, engagement and reflection” covered insights from my wedding photography study and applied them to reflection on information in more general terms. The central message was that despite some powerful, creative opportunities of emerging digital tools, the cultural trends that arise around technological affordances often push us toward unselectively collecting new information, rather than reflecting on what we already have.

Here is a video of the presentation.

Nicola Osborne has also posted a liveblogged version of events:

Blended Memory – an overview

The aim of this post is to give a brief overview of the personal and theoretical background to my research. For a more detailed description of my thinking and the literature that informs it, please take a look at my eBook chapter:

When I bought my first digital camera (in 2005: I was a relatively late adopter), I sensed how easy it would be to get carried away and take hundreds upon thousands of photographs, particularly when surrounded by interesting landscapes, monuments and people. Storage was a little more restrictive than it is today and I sometimes found myself having to decide between buying more memory capacity or going through and deleting some of my photographs. This was an interesting economic conundrum of time (to sort through hundreds of photographs), money (to purchase another memory card) and value (of personal memory artefacts). Continue reading “Blended Memory – an overview”

Diary: Editing a conference collection

Today, I am sitting in my cold office, editing the papers presented at the 3rd and 4th annual Inter-Disciplinary.Net Digital Memories conferences for inclusion in a hardcopy book. I am finding it hard going. Media studies (where I would position most of the research reported on in these papers) seems to employ highly-convoluted language filled with neologisms and sensitive nuances of expression which, if incorrectly used, misrepresent the view of the author in unforgivable ways. It is tiring but, I suppose, it is good experience.

An emerging theme of the book (and my sense is that it is emerging not because of its inherent force but because I want it to) is the way that the digital mediation of memory can influence our experience of, and connection to, past events (either personal or cultural/shared). These papers reinforce the idea that media and design strongly influence our perception of the content they carry and, therefore, the meaning we take from our interaction with technology. Continue reading “Diary: Editing a conference collection”

#blendedmem: Why we take photos and what we do with them

This is a little project page for a couple of questions I’ve put out there:

(a) Why do you take photos? 
(b) What do you do with photos you've taken?

I’m asking this because I want to explore the different purposes we have in mind when we take photos, and the discrepancy between those initial purposes and what we end up doing with the photos later on. This should help me to refine some “purpose” categories I’ve been working on for my research and perhaps, eventually, explain why some of us seem to take so many photos and do so little with them while others manage to engage meaningfully with every photo they take.

Continue reading “#blendedmem: Why we take photos and what we do with them”

Progress snapshot: Framework analysis

I am currently working through the interviews of my first study, using Nvivo 10 to help me code the transcripts. These interviews explored how people at a wedding engaged with photography during and after the event. I will use this case to develop a framework for exploring personal photography practices that includes the purposes for which people engage in these practices and the technological and cultural drivers that influence them.

I have plenty of reservations about Nvivo, in particular the way that it seems to coerce me into treating the data in particular ways that I might not otherwise have wanted to do. An example is its quantification of everything – it’s easy to get sucked into comparing the number of instances of different codes and then attaching an inappropriate value to this comparison. I am keeping thorough notes on these observations as well as any other methodological issues that come up. Continue reading “Progress snapshot: Framework analysis”

Purposes of photography

In a previous post, I began an attempt to categorise the purposes for which we take photographs (as distinct from why we do what we do with them after they’ve been taken). As part of this process, I have been looking for web posts describing why people take photos. An example is the Photojojo forum page: Why do you take photos? Alongside this, I have done my own little survey via Twitter and Facebook, the results of which you can see on the purposes of photography project page.

The categories of purpose I would like to begin with are memorial, communicative, creative and investigative. Based on the accounts gleaned from the Internet and my own research, I have attempted to outline the kinds of photos these purposes might produce and how these categories might overlap (since the taking of a photo can, and often does, have more than one purpose). Not all of the accounts fit neatly into my current categories, hence the addition of a temporary “other” category for types of photography that require more thought. Continue reading “Purposes of photography”