I’M not an accomplished globe-trotter, but I enjoy quick breaks away. Last month I visited Carcassonne in southern France, and a year previously I visited Valencia.
If you doubt me, I can provide evidence - my phone’s memory is dominated by images of both.
It wasn’t always thus though - go back ten or more years and you will struggle to find photographic evidence of my trips to Krakow, Rome, Barcelona, or Tuscany.
I’m not sure what happened - perhaps the easy pleasure of reliving such pleasant times - but my previous resistance had always had a reason; I suspected that a focus on getting the perfect photo would detract from the ‘being-in-the-moment’ experience, and that I would end up remembering the image on my phone and the experience of taking the photo rather than the place itself.
I remain aware of this risk, and restrict myself pretty strictly in time spent taking photos. Still, looking back on Carcassonne a lot of my recollection is looking at the beautiful old city through a screen.
So was I right to resist? Should I return to the Luddite barricades?
Luckily, some research in psychology can help us to decide.
In 2014, Linda Henkel investigated the issue by bringing research participants to an art museum in the USA. They were asked to examine some exhibits, and to photograph others. Subsequently, they were tested for their memories of the exhibits and of the trip.
What she found was that people who took photos of whole (and not just parts of) exhibits had worse memory for the details of objects, for objects themselves, and for where in the museum they were located. She termed this phenomenon a photo-taking-impairment effect.
The outcome of this study wasn’t a one-off either - it has been replicated in similar studies.
But Henkel’s work involved taking a single photo - and who takes single photos with a smartphone? If there’s an image worth capturing, you want to get it right - as evidence, there are many photos on my phone of the old city of Carcassonne at night, (I include my best effort here!).
Surely taking multiple photos should make a difference - right?
Well, Julia Shares and Benjamin Storm, of Mississippi State University and UC Santa Cruz respectively, have investigated just this question and published their findings recently.
They conducted three separate studies - in one people were shown 30 paintings on a screen, one at a time, and told to either look at each, take one smartphone photo, or take five smartphone photos; the worst memory was found in where five photos were taken.
The second study had participants either take no photos of any of the images, take one photo of each, or take five photos of each; here, both photo groups had worse memories than those who just looked, although the one-photo group did worst.
In the final study, the five-photo group were asked to take five different photos of each image, rather than just snapping the same angle five times - and they also did worse in recall than just looking.
So what’s the take-home? It looks like, on the whole, if you’re taking photos of your experience, you’re not actually going to remember the experiences as well.
But why? It may be because we surrender responsibility for memory to our devices - after all, it’s easier and we are cognitive misers where possible. Perhaps more likely is that, when we are focused on the photo we are taking, we are not really attending well to the thing that we are photographing - so in our efforts to preserve the memory, we are not laying down an effective memory at all.
Is there anything we can do? Henkel found that zooming in on particular aspects of an object we are photographing didn’t negatively affect memory compared to just looking; but that would perhaps just lead to weird photos of bits of things.
Kristen Diehl of USC Los Angeles suggests that mindful photography (where we focus on the lived experience rather than on the outcome) can enhance memory.
Or do what’s often worked for me. Go on holidays with charming company, and let them take the photos while you enjoy the experience. Just don’t show them this article.