Want To Remember Something? Then Don’t Snap A Photo

A picture might last forever, but it won’t let you form a memory. Why you need to really look at something to remember it.

Want To Remember Something? Then Don’t Snap A Photo
[Image: Flickr user Orin Zebest]

When you see something beautiful–a painting, a sunset, your friend falling down on the sidewalk–whatever you do, don’t take a picture of it. New research shows that snapping pictures of the things you admire dampens–rather than enhances–your memory of them.


That’s according to Fairfield University professor Linda Hinkel, whose conclusions were recently published in the journal Psychological Science. Hinkel asked experiment subjects to go on a museum tour and photograph some objects while simply observing others. The people remembered fewer works of art and fewer details if they took photos of the objects as a whole, what she calls “the photo-taking-impairment effect.”

As she tells the Daily Mail:

People so often whip out their cameras almost mindlessly … When people rely on technology to remember for them, it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences.

Why would taking photos hamper your memory?

Well, let’s consider what we understand about how memories form. Before an aspect of experience can become a memory, you need to first pay attention to it. Ever wonder why it’s so easy to forget where you put your keys? It’s because you place them on a table, in a drawer, your coat pocket without ever allowing that action into your working memory. Since you didn’t pay attention to it–for at least eight seconds, research says–it didn’t have a chance to enter into your memory.

However, Hinkel found that if people zoomed in to take photos of specific details of a given work of art, their recall didn’t regress. If you photographed specific details–and thus attended to them–then the work of art would better seep into your memory.

Vincent van Gogh’s Vase with Twelve Sunflowers; standard view (left), zoomed in (right)

It’s not the technology that’s making our memories worse, but the way we use it

Tech-based multitasking restricts our ability to focus (and thus form memories), but if what if the technology was an instrument of concentration? This study shows that if we use tech to zoom in on life, then it can help us better pay attention to it.

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.