Eyes are better at mental snapshots than cameras, study suggests

What you take photos of may not be the same as what your brain remembers.

Story highlights

  • Study involved undergraduates at an art museum
  • Memory was impaired when objects were photographed
  • But zooming in helped participants remember those objects
I've got hundreds of photos from my recent Europe trip, split between a smartphone and a big camera. A lot are shots of the same thing -- my attempt to get the perfect lighting on a fountain or a cathedral, for example -- so that I'll have these scenes to remember always.
So I was interested to read a new study in the journal Psychological Science suggesting that the act of taking photos may actually diminish what we remember about objects being photographed.
"People just pull out their cameras," says study author Linda Henkel, researcher in the department of psychology at Fairfield University in Connecticut. "They just don't pay attention to what they're even looking at, like just capturing the photo is more important than actually being there."
At the same time, she found that zooming in on objects helps preserve people's memory of them, beyond just the detail on which they zoomed.
Henkel's father is a photographer, so she has been hanging around photos and taking photos all her life. She wanted to see if snapping photos of objects would impact people's memories of what they saw at a museum.
This study had a small sample size: 27 undergraduates participated in the first part, and 46 in the second. Both groups were mostly women. In order to strengthen the conclusions, this research would need to be replicated with a lot more people and a more balanced sex ratio, not to mention a wider range of demographic characteristics such as age.
But this is an interesting start. It underscores the point that there are different ways that the brain processes information: At an automatic level, by taking pictures, and at a more meaningful level, by focusing on a specific object or something with a personal association, said Paul D. Nussbaum, clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
It's that deeper level that enables memories to form, Nussbaum said in an e-mail.
"The more we engage our brain into processing a stimuli and the more personal that processing is, the more solid the memory formation and recall," he said.
Photos impairing memory?
For the first experiment, participants went to the Bellarmine Museum of Art. One-third of them had never been to the museum before. They visited 30 objects, spanning such media as painting, sculpture, jewelry and pottery.
One group of students was instructed to read the name of each object out loud, look at the object for 20 seconds and then take a photo of it. The other participants looked at an object for 30 seconds without taking a picture.
The following day, participants were asked to write down the names of all objects they remembered from the museum, and to indicate which they photographed. They could describe any objects whose names they could not recall.
Then, they were given a list of 30 objects and were asked to indicate which they had seen, which they had photographed and which were not on the tour. They also answered questions about details of objects, and completed a photo-recognition test of objects they may or may not have seen.
Henkel found that people performed worse on memory recognition tasks in refer