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Every Picture Tells A Story?

(Maybe not!), says this Fairfield University psychologist


Now that almost everyone has a smartphone, the act of documenting travels and special events has become, literally, a snap. Thanks to the built in, high quality cameras in these devices, we are now equipped to carry thousands of photos in our pockets. With the possibility of a “selfie” in hand, we don’t even need a willing friend or fellow tourist to capture ourselves in front of a famous landmark. 

But do our digital photographs enhance our memory of the people, places and things we capture with the camera?

That was the question that Dr. Linda Henkel, a psychologist involved in memory research at Fairfield University, set out to answer with a recent study she conducted. The findings were reported in the journal Psychological Science, and have captured a lot of attention.

The surprising result of Henkel’s research: the act of taking photos may actually impede your memory of an object or event.

“The percentage of pictures that are printed is now very small, and many people never bother to look over most of what’s stored in their cameras," says Henkel. “Before we had smartphones, there was some cost and effort involved in taking pictures. We had to pay to get film developed, so we usually spent some time looking at the images we took.” The psychologist notes that pulling out the smartphone camera to capture something—almost mindlessly—often means that the picture takers won’t pay attention to what’s going on right in front of them.

In Henkel’s experiment, students were led on a tour of the university’s art museum and were asked to take note of certain objects, either by photographing them or by simply observing them. The next day, students’ memory of the objects was tested.

The data showed that participants were less accurate in recognizing the objects they had photographed, compared to those that they had simply observed, in what Dr. Henkel calls the “photo-taking impairment effect.”

“When we count on the camera, we may feel that we don’t need to remember,” says Henkel. Her study results suggest that using a camera, rather than our own senses and powers of observation, may impact how any experience might ultimately be remembered. It’s a cautionary tale for those of us who are enamored of the beautiful images captured on our iPhones and Galaxies.

“The camera has just one eye,” says Dr. Henkel, reminding the interviewer that we humans have two. Perhaps it’s time to think about being part of a moment, rather than just storing it in our pocket.

Next up, one of Dr. Henkel’s students, Katelyn Parisi, will organize a study to see how well people remember pictures in which they appear—in short, do selfies impact memory?

“It will be interesting to see whether people have better recollections when they are a part of the picture," says the psychologist. 

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