Are All of Your Photo Memories Actually Making You Forget?

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 9 2013 7:49 PM

Are All of Your Photo Memories Actually Making You Forget?

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A couple takes a 'selfie' outside Rockefeller Center in New York City.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

We’ve all done it; we’ve all taken a zillion pictures on that beach vacation or at a wedding. And why not? It’s easier than ever with a camera burning a hole in our pockets at all times. Not to mention, it’s not just easier to take the well-timed photo, it’s easier than ever to share our Instagrammed lives. But is all that memory-making actually making you forget? A new study in the journal Psychological Science says it's quite possible.

The study, which set out to find out how taking photographs impacts our memory, used undergraduate students as subjects. The students were led on a tour around a museum and instructed to photograph certain objects and simply observe others. The following day their memory of what they'd seen, and clicked, was tested. The result was what the study’s author, Linda Henkel of Fairfield University, describes as the “photo-taking-impairment effect.”

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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.

Henkel found that there were exceptions to the click-and-forget phenomenon—when you zoom in, rather than taking your standard wide-angle shot. 

…when participants zoomed in to photograph a specific part of the object, their subsequent recognition and detail memory was not impaired, and, in fact, memory for features that were not zoomed in on was just as strong as memory for features that were zoomed in on.

Elliot Hannon is a writer in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.