Many people say that they take photos of places and events in order to remember them. But new research says that taking photos might actually have the opposite effect.
Linda Henkel, a psychology professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut, has long studied the science of memory. She has observed a phenomenon she's calling the "photo-taking impairment effect," which is when people have a harder time remembering something because they took too many pictures.
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Does that sound confusing? Let Henkel explain.
"The objects that they had taken photos of — they actually remembered fewer of them, and remembered fewer details about those objects. Like, how was this statue's hands positioned, or what was this statue wearing on its head," she told NPR regarding an experiment in which subjects took pictures of objects at an art museum and were later quizzed about the objects. "They remembered fewer of the details if they took photos of them, rather than if they had just looked at them."
For many people, using a camera meant that they remembered objects, but only in a very specific way. Rather than relying on all of their senses, they just looked at a picture again and claimed to remember it exactly as it looked in the picture.
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So, how do we solve this problem? There's one quick and easy solution: put down the smartphone. While Henkel is quick to say that there's nothing wrong with taking pictures of an important event such as a wedding or a graduation, it's also important to spend some time without a camera in hand, living and soaking up the experience. She notes that memories change over time as we remember different details or change our opinions about the people involved in the situation, and that's OK. Relying only on photos, however, means that the story can never change.
This gives credence to many of the arguments for taking a break from our phones. Earlier this month, writer and director Gary Turk turned his spoken word piece "Look Up" into a powerful video about the point of going offline and building real relationships. The video struck a nerve with many viewers, and it quickly went viral.
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Henkel would probably agree with the message in Turk's video. "Human memory is much more dynamic than photographs are capable of," she says.