Taking photos: does it help memory or ruin it?

When it comes to photography, our opinions at the Starts at 60 office vary wildly.

For some of us, the most important thing is living in the moment. The more engage with the people and places around us, the better they can shape us. Why place a lens or screen between yourself and the world?

For others, it’s all about creating a visual journal: a record of the travels and everyday encounters that may otherwise fade from memory. This attitude can be weighed down by a peculiar pre-emptive nostalgia; a need to immortalise and preserve the things that won’t last forever.

But is a photo truly the best way to preserve a memory? According to a new study at Fairfield University in Connecticut (as published in Psychological Science) it may actually be making our memories worse.

Psychological scientist Linda Henkel couldn’t help but notice how automatically people around her took photos. “People so often whip out their cameras almost mindlessly to capture a moment, to the point that they are missing what is happening right in front of them”.

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To put this idea to the test, she asked volunteers to take a tour of a nearby museum and observe specific displays. Some were asked to take photos; others, by simply observing.

The next day, they were asked to describe what they saw. Those who took photos were far less accurate.

Henkel describes this overreliance on technology to remember for us as the “photo-taking impairment effect”.

“Research has suggested that the sheer volume and lack of organisation of digital photos for personal memories discourages many people from accessing and reminiscing about them. In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos, rather than just amass them”.

Henkel she reminds readers that people are normally driven to take photos out of curiosity and interest, not out of academic instruction. Taking photos and living in the moment do not need to be mutually exclusive.

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Nonetheless, it’s an important reminder to us all: a camera lens is no substitute for our own eyes.


Do you agree? Do photos help your memory, or hinder it? And what memories do your own photos bring back for you?