Does taking photographs ruin your memory?

A scientist wanted to find out whether photographing objects affects what’s remembered about them. She found that the impact was huge but there might be more to it
  • A man photographs a statue entitled Pentateuque
Is the man more likely to remembe the elephant on his back without the photo? Is the elephant less likely to remember the man under his feet? Photograph: Wong Maye-E/AP

On a guided tour of an art museum early this year, 28 university students were told to simply observe 15 objects and to photograph 15 others. Dr Linda Henkel was studying the students all the while to measure whether taking photographs affected their memory.

The next day, the students were asked to remember the objects and their details. The results demonstrate what Dr Henkel calls a “photo-taking-impairment effect“.

If participants took a photo of each object as a whole, they remembered fewer objects and remembered fewer details about the objects and the objects’ locations in the museum than if they instead only observed the objects and did not photograph them.

Zoom to remember

There’s a lot more to it though. The study found that if the students changed their behaviour even slightly, the effect on memory was entirely different; zooming in to photograph part of an object actually improved memory. What’s more, students who focused the lens on a specific area could even recall parts that weren’t zoomed in on.

Dr Henkel concluded that additional “cognitive processes” (i.e. thinking and paying attention) “can eliminate the photo-taking-impairment effect”.

What did the scientist forget?

There are a few other caveats that it’s worth adding:

1. Plenty of photos aren’t about capturing the detail on a terracotta vase or the brush strokes on a painting – they’re about registering an emotion. Many people still recall the feelings of something (a wedding, a birth, a summer) in great detail, even if they can’t remember the caterers or the flowers.

2. Interest matters. If asked to open 20 new windows in your browser of 20 different articles and take screenshots of some of them, it’s likely that the ones you remember are the ones you were likely to read – the ones with the titles or pictures that seem interesting to you. The students’ memory was probably affected by how much they were interested in the objects in the first place. In short, the results might have been very different if the students had chosen what they could photograph.

3. Memory isn’t just about images – it’s about words too. The students were asked to write down the names of the objects they remembered. Presumably, a painting called hippocampus is easier to recall than one called sepultusque est in pulvere hydria.

4. Memory recall isn’t as simple as a ‘do or don’t’. Maybe the students with cameras remembered more details about the objects (albeit more inaccurately) than those without. Is it better to remember 50 facts slightly imprecisely than to remember 1? Would you rather bump into someone that you’d met once and accidentally call them Anna rather than Anne and ask about their 3 children rather than 4 or just bump into them and remember that they fell over the last time you’d met?

5. The study used 28 undergraduate students and 30 objects in the first museum tour then used 46 students and 27 objects in the second study to test the effect of zooming. Changing the students and the objects means that these findings, published in the Journal of Psychological Science, probably aren’t a sufficient reason to stop taking photos.

Have we missed any other caveats? Do you think the research is persuading? Let us know in the comments below


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