How our photo obsession is threatening our memories

Memories should be revisited.
Memories should be revisited.
Image: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch
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Growing up with a father who was a photographer, I have long been interested in how photos shape our memories. How does something as simple as a photograph help or harm our ability to remember our experiences?

Now that technology has enabled us to take dozens of pictures in seconds, stopping only when we have captured that perfect smile, photos have become a commodity versus the precious memento they once were. A study from Shutterfly reported that Americans now take more than 10.3 billion photos every month. And those ubiquitous mobile devices in our pocket are now the primary photography device for 60% of regular photo takers.

That’s in stark contrast to a few decades ago when the cost of photography meant that we typically only captured moments that were worth saving and passing down to generations to come. One of the main reasons respondents in the Shutterfly survey said they took photos was so that they could remember their experiences. But now, those valuable moments languish on multiple and often disconnected digital platforms between photos of last night’s dinner, selfies, and our toes in the sand on our last vacation, rarely to be revisited. Is it any wonder we’re losing track of the photos that are worth remembering?

The problem of memories being forgotten in the stream is compounded by how our brains work. When we rely on memory aids like cameras and smartphones we effectively outsource our ability to recall—taking away from the cognitive processing that’s required to create lasting memories. I recently examined how photographing objects impacts our memory. In two studies, 74 university students were sent to an art museum to photograph some objects and to simply observe others.

The next day, the students were asked to recall the objects they had seen. The results demonstrate what I call the photo-taking-impairment effect: when the students took photos, they remembered fewer objects overall and remembered fewer details about the objects and their location in the museum, compared to those they had only observed. This is consistent with other research showing that when we count on external devices such as a computer, we actually remember less.

In an effort to remember, by viewing the world through the lens of our cameras, we are in fact undercutting our quest for memories. I’m not necessarily suggesting you stop taking pictures—since the birth of my grandson four months ago I’ve taken over 1,000 photos—guilty as charged. But while our snapping behavior has headed into overdrive, our revisiting behavior hasn’t kept up.

The key to remembering more is revisiting and sharing our photos. Looking back at a photo helps to reactivate and consolidate the memory, making it more accessible later and training the brain to remember the story behind the picture. Unfortunately, the same Shutterfly research found that although we’re taking more photos than ever, we’re sharing fewer of them. Even though 90% of people who regularly take photos agree that photos become more meaningful when their story is shared in-person, less than half of the photos we take are actually being shared. In addition, the majority of people reported that they have not recently looked at photos that were 10 years or older.

As we enter the holiday season, a time of memories worth preserving, don’t just passively take pictures, but revisit them. The stories that we tell are a valuable part of keeping memories accessible and allowing photos to be the strong memory cues that they can be. Whether you crack open a photo album or pass around a picture on your phone, share a story with your loved ones. Your memories will thank you.