We all take photographs. Whether it be the daily snaps we share on our InstaStory, or as a professional working for singapore’s best photo booths, everyone has had experience working with a camera. With easily accessible cameras available on our phones, taking photographs has never been easier. But what effects can the constant rapid-fire of photo-taking have on us as individuals, and as a society? What is actually happening in our brains whenever we take pictures of juicy fried chicken or the family photo at a holiday? In this article, we review some research findings from the fields of psychology to better understand the effects photography can have on our memory.
Do we really remember things better when we take photos?
It makes sense to assume that when we take photos, we’ll remember an event better. After all, we did do some work in order to get that photo taken, whether it be whipping out the phone, or arranging everyone nicely so that they can all be seen. But some psychology studies actually say that the reverse is true – we remember things worse when we take photos of them. In a 2014 study by Fairfield University, participants were asked to walk around a museum and take photographs of half the objects in it. The study found that the participants could more easily remember the objects that they did not photograph, contrary to popular belief.
Some researchers attribute this “loss of memory” to a phenomenon called “cognitive offloading”, which is when our brains use lesser cognitive functions by relying on other mediums. In such scenarios, we would intentionally forget information that we no longer need, as long as we store it somewhere else.
To illustrate this phenomenon, we can use the example of a person who needs to remember a specific string of eight digits – a phone number, an address, or just a serial number for a product. The most common thing for a person to do would be to write down those eight digits and bring the paper to where he needs to use that information. That is cognitive offloading.
However, there has been some research to suggest that photography doesn’t necessarily produce the effect of cognitive uploading. Another study conducted by the University of Southern California tested the effect of cognitive uploading by asking participants to walk around a virtual museum, with some participants to taking photos and some not to take photos at all. A part of those who took photos was told that their photos would be deleted after they exit the museum. Given what we know, we would expect those whose photos were saved to have forgotten more of what they saw in the museum. However, there was no real significant difference between the two groups of people who took photos, which leads us to believe the idea of cognitive offloading may not apply truly to photography.
The true effects of photography on our brain has yet to fully come to light. What we do know is that, for certain, the shutter-click of a camera does signal something to your brain. Whether it is to remember that moment more easily or to always remember that a photograph was taken, photographs will surely serve as an important aid to memory.