Documenting your life may come at the cost of memory formation

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How much do you value your memories? Enough to forego that next amazing Instagram pic?

Research by UC Santa Cruz doctoral student Julia Soares has found compelling evidence that the act of taking a photograph impairs people's memories of the event.

"People think that taking a photo will help them remember something better, but it's actually quite the contrary," said Soares.

In a set of experiments, she invited people to her lab for a virtual museum tour where they looked at paintings on computer screens, knowing they would be tested on what they saw.

She compared how well participants remembered the paintings following three scenarios: when they just looked at the images; when they looked and took pictures using a phone; and when they took pictures using Snapchat.

The picture-takers consistently scored worse—by as much as 20 percent—on multiple choice tests about what they had seen.

Soares thought that the result could be chalked up to the phenomenon known as "cognitive off-loading": that is, not remembering as well because you know the camera is there to remember for you.

Even people who took pictures using Snapchat—in which images last only 10 seconds—remembered less. People who were asked to take a picture and then delete the image, also did worse.

"Whenever they used a camera, they were less likely to remember as well as when they just observed," Soares said.

So what's behind it? Soares has a few ideas: That by stepping out of the moment to take a picture, people become less focused on what's in front of them, a phenomenon she termed "attentional disengagement." Taking photos might also create a false sense that we know the subject better than we actually do—what she calls a "metacognitive illusion"—making us less likely to use the mental strategies that help us remember.

Ironically, most of the photo-takers were sure that taking pictures improved their recall, she said.

Her results have made her think twice about when, and how often, she takes pictures.

"I'm not saying people shouldn't ever take photographs, but they might want to be mindful about deciding when they do it."

Explore further

Taking photos of experiences boosts visual memory, impairs auditory memory

More information: Julia S. Soares et al. Forget in a Flash: A Further Investigation of the Photo-Taking-Impairment Effect, Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (2017). DOI: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2017.10.004
Citation: Documenting your life may come at the cost of memory formation (2018, June 29) retrieved 26 May 2019 from
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Jun 29, 2018
It's indicative of the problem with smart phones where you can look something up.

It comes at the cost of the brain economizing in the face of energy use and allocation. This is part of it's basic design and it will do so, unrelentingly.

Einstein said, never commit to memory, something you can look up.

What he meant, is if you are using maximum brain power in other ways....don't waste your retention and recall system on things you can look up.

He was not talking about defeating basic or total aspects of the learning and retention system. Which is the basis of cognition.

It's the library built in, through systematic training and use...that allows for speedy cognition, the jumps to various areas.

It's part nature and part nurture.

Jun 29, 2018
Einstein was notoriously absent minded. After reading the morning paper, he would often leave to work in his house shoes and his wife would have to remind him to put on his work shoes.

The vast majority of intelligence is genetic (nature). IQ can only be increased slightly through training because of the plasticity of the human brain.

Jun 30, 2018
I'm surprised it didn't occur to the researchers that the act of taking the picture requires attention focused on the camera rather than the event being photographed. And in that case, their memory is of taking a picture, rather than the event that they had decided to photograph.

Jul 02, 2018
Iron, from the article:

Soares has a few ideas:That by stepping out of the moment to take a picture, people become less focused on what's in front of them, a phenomenon she termed "attentional disengagement."

However, I do think that you stated it more precisely.

Jul 03, 2018
Any distraction disrupts attention from the task at hand. Multitasking is a dangerous myth. Pilots, surgeons, machine tool operators, vehicle maintenance crews-- should all work off of checklists rather than trusting that they won't forget a step and kill someone. All it takes is one time.

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