The Memory Cost of a Snapshot

When I had a chance to tour the Louvre a few years back, I have to admit to not being that inspired by the Mona Lisa. Perhaps it was something to do with the view, which was as much of the crowd and their cameras as it was of DaVinci’s famous portrait:

A view of the Mona Lisa, by Lydie France/EPA, from

A view of the Mona Lisa, by Lydie France/EPA, from

The camera snapshot of an exhibit is almost an automatic reflex by museum visitors in the 21st century, although I must admit I am a bit baffled by the motivation. I’m not sure what the teeming crowd wants to gain with those snapshots…but now we have good evidence of what they will lose: some of their memory for the art they were photographing.

The simple act of taking a picture of a piece of art seems to hurt memory of that art. When college students took a tour of the Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University, they looked at different pieces of art for about 30 seconds (sadly, about right for the average museum visit) and photographed half of them. The next day, the students were less likely to recognize the art they had photographed – from the name of the art or from a photograph – than the art they had just looked at. This was true even in a second experiment when students were given extra time to take the photograph after looking at the art.

Now, the cost to their memory is only a small dent – they recognized about 95% of the art they just looked at, and only 90% of the art they also photographed – and hardly qualifies as camera-induced amnesia. Even with a little head start in forgetting, though, and works less famous than Mona Lisa, photographers might find the name of the art has escaped their memory by the time they pull the photograph off their camera’s memory card.

Worse memory for the art they are photographing is no doubt the last thing a museum visitor with a camera expects; after all, photographs can sometimes create memories for events that never even happened, so surely the act of taking a photograph should make a memory even more secure. But that depends on our intentions when we press the shutter.

Although you probably share the common feeling that our memories somehow latch onto useless information while refusing to retain what we want it to (how did I pick up the names of the Twilight cast when I can’t keep my own students’ names straight?), there are actually some very efficient processes at work there. One of those is “directed forgetting“: when we see something and decide we don’t need to remember it, we usually forget it (if it’s unemotional; people who work with PTSD are trying to find a way to get this to work for emotional events). Our museum-going shutterbugs may be thinking, even unconsciously, that since they have a photograph they don’t need to bother trying to remember it themselves…and their brains oblige, letting the camera’s memory card do all the heavy lifting.

 If you want both a photograph and a memory, the key may be to compose your shot. When students were instructed to zoom in on a specific piece of the art, such as a statue’s hands, they showed no memory impairment – even for details of the art that weren’t featured in their close-up photo. The process of composition may aid your memory, because you are thinking about the art while taking your picture.

The golden rule, then, is don’t rely on your camera to do your remembering for you. It was already good advice in the event of a catastrophic hard drive failure that takes your digital photographs with it; it may also be good advice to help you remember the things you are photographing a little better.
Henkel, L.A. (2013). Point-and-shoot memories: The influence of taking photos on memory for a museum tour. Psychological Science. PMID: 24311477


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