Dec. 12, 2013 at 9:06 AM ET
You took hundreds of photos on your last vacation, and you probably uploaded those pictures to Instagram and Facebook, too. But how well do you really remember those moments you so frantically captured?
A new study suggests that we are actually less likely to remember something once we’ve taken a photo of it. It’s because we are less likely to remember information if we think we can retrieve it later— like, you’re less likely to remember how to get to a friend’s house if you know you can always look it up on Google maps, for instance.
“We’re kind of counting on our technology to keep our memories,” says Linda Henkel, a psychologist at Fairfield University. “We collect photos almost as if they’re trophies, or evidence, but that’s not the same thing as trying to capture the experience.”
The study, which was published this week in the journal Psychological Science, was done at the Bellarmine Museum of Art, where people participating in the experiment were taken on a museum tour. They were told to photograph some of the objects, and to simply observe others. The next day, their memories were tested — and they remembered more details about the objects they observed than the objects they photographed. (They were even shown photos of things they had taken photos of, and they could not remember having seen those things at all, let alone photographing them.)
But in a second experiment, volunteers were instructed to zoom in on certain parts of a work of art. When their memories were later tested, they not only remembered the details of the part they’d zoomed in on, but they also remembered details from the rest of the piece.
You can apply this idea to your own life, Henkel says, by sort of zooming in on the moments that matter. Photograph those moments, and just live the rest, she says. Because photos can help us remember experiences — there are probably a few “memories” from your childhood that don’t stem from the actual event, but the photo of the event. But the sheer volume of photos we take today means that we don’t often go back and look at the photos after we take them. “It’s, ‘Oh, hey, I got to the Grand Canyon. Great, let me take my picture, now I’m done,’” Henkel says.
She’s not suggesting that we go back to printing out photos and putting them in real-life photo albums, unless that’s something you’re into. But you might consider organizing your Facebook photos into albums —maybe choosing your favorites from 2013, for instance — and taking the time to click through your favorites every once in a while.
Also: Don’t do the thing where you use your smartphone to record your favorite band playing at a live show instead of actually listening to them play, she says. “Look at the stage, and be in the moment,” she says, “instead of the representation of the moment.”