Don’t Let the Cameras and Social Media Do All the Remembering

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Don’t Let the Cameras and Social Media Do All the Remembering

People's way of remembering things now is by posting pictures in their social media accounts. / Photo by: Kaspars Grinvalds via Shutterstock


Having a “photographic memory” in today’s social media era now has a different context. Memories are less likely to be preserved by keeping souvenirs, letters, gifts given by loved ones in a memory box or written in a journal. Presently, memories now take the form of facebook mostly perfectly taken pictures, Instagram posts, and tweets. With a smartphone camera by their side, people can now easily take a picture of a place, person, event or object and share it to a vast range of audiences.

Rather than making people remember the event, by taking photos of it, it keeps a person away from the experience and lessens their capability of recalling them.  Psychologist Linda Henkel whose father works as a photographer investigated this phenomenon by conducting her study in an art museum.

Storing photos in social media also actually means that instead of depending on the brain’s memory to remember the event, an individual depends on their digital devices to do the remembering for them. This was shown in the study with the title Media Usage Diminishes Memory for Experiences, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.


The Photo-taking Impairment Effect Experiment

To study how photographs affect the human memory, Henkel made students visit the art museum of Fairfield University in Connecticut. A few of the students merely looked at the objects in the museum while others took pictures of them. After the visit was over, the students had to take a memory test in the laboratory. This was what Henkel called the “Photo-taking impairment effect.”

She narrates that the students recalled less about the objects they had taken pictures of as well as their details. Minor details such as how the hands of the statue were placed or what it was wearing on its head would be hard for them to remember if they had photographed them, instead of just observing them.

Henkel warns, “As soon as you hit ‘click’ on that camera, it’s as if you’ve outsourced your memory. Any time we… count on these external memory devices, we’re taking away from the kind of mental cognitive processing that might help us actually remember stuff on our own.”


Photo-taking impairment effect is when an individual cannot recall the objects and details of the picture they had taken, that even minor details would be hard to remember instead of just observing it. / Photo by: Free-Photos via Pixabay


How Social Media Photos Shape a Person’s Experience

Laura Loker, an associate editor at Verily magazine explains how social media photos change the way a person experiences the memory:

Tailoring photos for an audience

The moment a person posts a photo on social media, the experience goes from personal to being something that is consumed by the audience. Since they want it to be more presentable to the audience, the photos become “self-consciously curated”.

One of social media’s most notable effect is the “highlight reel” effect, wherein other people’s lives appear glamorous and perfect, so an individual only shows the portion of their life that looks glamorous and perfect. Thinking of the audience one has on social media can make a person forget they are the ones that own the experiences and not their audience.

Loker states, “Where memory-keeping is concerned, we often record experiences in anticipation of the social media posts they will become, rather than as  the personal experiences that they are.”

Taking photos for an audience can also decrease the pleasure of living in the moment, a reearch headed by Alixandra Barasch, a marketing professor at New York University shows. Barasch and her colleagues say that the diminishment of enjoyment happens because when a person takes pictures that are meant for sharing, they expect to be evaluated or judged by others. This makes them more anxious with how they present themselves. They may start being concerned about how many likes they will garner for a photo or whether that picture they posted was in the best quality. Thinking about photos like this will make taking photos less enjoyable.

Not using the other senses

Using social media to keep one’s memories also confines one to visual media. Other senses can be used to help make a person recall a memory better. It was discovered in a study that using the sense of smell is better at prompting memories than the sense of sight and hearing, which is why when someone recognizes a certain smell, it can remind them of their past.

Music was also found to be linked to memory. A research conducted in 2009 shows that the region oif the brain that keeps and recovers a memory also connects emotions, music and memories.


People's way of remembering things now is by posting pictures in their social media accounts. / Photo by: FirmBee via Shutterstock


Theories on Why Taking Pictures Decreases the Ability to Remember

According to Curiosity, here are two theories why cameras affect an individual’s memory:

Not paying enough attention

If a person does not pay attention, they cannot create vivid memories. Since taking pictures involves dividing the attention between the moment and the camera, this tends to make people lose their focus on the moment itself and also distances them from the experience.


This theory suggests that people are using other gadgets such as cameras as “external brains.” The mental chores, for instance, recalling the addresses of friends or officemates’s contact numbers, have now been transferred to phones. It was revealed in a study conducted in 2011 that people have become mentally reliant on computers. People would be more prone to remembering how to get the information on the internet rather than actually remembering the information.



Should a Photo be Taken?

Henkel is not strictly against photographing, but she advises people to be more mindful when taking photos. Pictures, she says can give everyone “rich retrieval clues.” People should actually take the effort to view those photos and relive the memories portrayed by them.

Anyone can choose how they want to recall an experience or memory. It is their decision whether they want to store it in their real brain or their external brains. However, they might want to consider setting their phone aside when they find something, like an event, a person or a place, that they want to remember for the rest of their lives.



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