Is Photography Good or Bad for your Memory?

The Adverse Effects of Photography on our Memory

Memory is the medium by which information and past experiences are retained in order to be used in the present (as cited in McLeod, 2007). The information processing involved in the formation of memories occurs in three stages, namely encoding, storage and retrieval. Encoding or acquisition occurs when we first receive sensory input. It can be divided into two types of processes, automatic, which does not require any conscious effort, and effortful, which requires attention and focus. Retrieval constitutes of getting the information from where it is stored in the brain. Since memory retrieval is triggered by external cues such as photographs, memory and photography are often linked together. Although photography is associated with remembering past events and holds a high social and emotional value for most people, evidence indicates that it has a negative impact on the encoding and retrieval of information from memory, especially without the assistance of external cues.

The neurological connections in our brain “link all the sensations that form memory”, so the more sensory inputs we encode, the stronger the neuronal connections are (Resnick, 2018). The greater the strength of the neuronal connections, the more the associations are formed, and the better we are at retrieving a memory. Photography has been shown to divert our attention from the various sensory inputs around us. This distraction has an adverse impact on the encoding and retrieval of information. The negative effect of photography on memory retrieval was shown by a study conducted by researchers Barasch et al. (2017). The participants in this study were asked to take a tour of a museum exhibit while listening to an audio guide. Participants were randomly assigned to the camera condition and the no-camera condition. Those in the camera condition were given the liberty to photograph the exhibit, whereas the participants in the no-camera group were not permitted to do so (Barasch et al., 2017). After the participants finished viewing the exhibit, they were asked to complete a questionnaire (Barasch et al., 2017). From the results, researchers Barasch et al. (2017) found that those participants who were in the camera group were more likely to forget the information they obtained through their audio guides than those in the no-camera group. These findings suggest that photography restricts us from being fully present in the moment. Photographer Sara Melotti (2017) feels as though she is stuck in an “in-between-realm” while she takes pictures and believes that photography often requires sacrificing the present moment for the future.

Additionally, photography also gives rise to a phenomenon called cognitive offloading. When information is readily available in the external world, the demand for cognitive processing in the brain decreases, resulting in reduced effortful processing. This was demonstrated by a widely popular study conducted by researcher Henkel (2014). In this study, participants were given a tour of a museum exhibit and were asked to take pictures of some objects and observe the others without taking any pictures of them. When the participants were tested later, it was found that taking photographs impaired the accuracy with which they recognized an object (Henkel, 2014). Thus, our dependency on photographs to preserve our memories negatively impacts the efficacy of our brain’s cognitive processing to do so.

However, I believe that photography plays an integral role in our life. Photographs help us reminisce the past and relive our emotions. The importance of photography, therefore, cannot be denied. However, evidence suggests that it has an unfavorable effect on most aspects of our memory. In conclusion, photography is an essential component of our life, but it is bad for our memory.

Works Cited

Barasch, A., Diehl, K., Silverman, J., & Zauberman, G. (2017). Photographic Memory: The Effects of Volitional Photo Taking on Memory for Visual and Auditory Aspects of an Experience. Psychological Science28(8), 1056–1066. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617694868

Henkel, L. A. (2014). Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour. Psychological Science25(2), 396–402. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613504438

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Stages of memory encoding storage and retrieval. Retrieved, 21, 2015.

Melotti, S. (2017, April 06). Is photography stopping us from living in the moment. Behind the Quest. Retrieved from http://behindthequest.com/is-photography-stopping-us-from-leaving-in-the-moment/

Resnick, B. (2018, March 28). What smartphone photography is doing to our memories. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2018/3/28/17054848/smartphones-photos-memory-research-psychology-attention

Photography: a Precious Tool

Photographs, at their highest potential, are able to showcase emotions and freeze time. However, photographs have different meanings for different people. While some argue that our generation uses photography obsessively, photos are also a way to remember emotions, hardships, and relationships. When photography is curated as a tool for reflection it is beneficial to our memory and works to further strengthen our emotions and relationships.

Take my grandfather, for example. On countless family vacations, whether it be on a ski lift or a jet ski, he’ll constantly have his camera on him. While he may take 400 photos a day, he’ll spend hours at night filtering, editing, and perfecting his images. A couple months later, our family will be gifted a Shutterfly book documenting the most precious of his images. My grandfather uses digital photography in a way film photography used to be used for. He spends hours developing images, then compiles them into a full work, one of which he takes pride in. In this way, photography acts as a tool to enhance, rather than replace, his memory. Years later, he is left with a tangible product in which he can look back on. 

Not only is this book a reminder of the vacation, but it also serves as a platform to remember emotions and moments with loved ones. In Dr. Ira Hyman’s piece, Photography and Memory, he states that photo review “serves as a form of rehearsal. In families, reviewing pictures can serve as a scaffold that enables conversations about the past with children. In this way, pictures can strengthen both memory and relationships” (2013). When we comb through our photos and isolate the most meaningful, then spend time reviewing those, we are able to fortify the recall mechanisms of these moments. Sharing these photos with family members can create a unifying sense of nostalgia, or teach new family members of the significant events in the past, making it easier to understand morals, anecdotes, and stories. 

Others may argue that photography is damaging to our memory. A 2017 study done by Evangelos Niforatos compared the recall ability of a college tour between those who could take photos to the those who could not. He found that participants not allowed to take photos on a tour were able to remember experiences better than those who could take photos. However, after Niforatos’ study, participants were not able to curate their photos. In a similar study testing if photography impairs memory, an experiment tested zooming into the details of a photograph. Linda A. Henkel found that focusing on details and spending time reviewing images canceled out the negative impact on participants memory. “This suggests that the additional attention and cognitive processes engaged by this focused activity can eliminate the photo-taking-impairment effect” (Henkel, 2014). This process of curation is what allows the brain to absorb and assign meaning to photos, that of which compliments our own memories. 

While there is evidence to suggest that excessive photography can be destructive to one’s memory, it is important to consider the positive effect it can have when used in a mindful way. Used diligently, photography has the ability to bring us closer and teach us lessons, therefore uniting multiple generations and creating art. My grandfather recognizes this and employs it in his daily life. When specifically curated, photography has the potential to enhance and revive memories, thereby strengthening the brain’s ability to remember.

Works Cited

Henkel, L. A. (2014). Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour. Psychological Science25(2), 396–402. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797613504438

Hyman, I. (2013). Photographs and Memories: Make memories, not photographs. Retrived from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us

Niforatos, E., Cinel, C., Mack, C. C., Langheinrich, M., Ward, G. (2017). Can Less be More? Contrasting Limited, Unlimited, and Automatic Picture Capture for Augmenting Memory Recall. PACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies. 1. 10.1145/3090086.

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