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Taking Photos Can Make Us Forget What We Photographed

By Wesley Fenlon

If you're taking a photo of something instead of simply observing it, you may be making it harder to remember.

When you go to a concert and take a photo or video of the band playing your favorite song, are you preserving that moment, or wasting it? Maybe you never take your phone from your pocket and hate the people who do, or maybe you think that you'll look back at that photograph, years later, and use it to focus your memory on a moment you really loved.

Well, according to a new study, taking a photograph may not help you remember a moment. In fact, it's more likely to make you more forgetful, according to an article published at Fast Co.Design on Thursday.

"Fairfield University psychologist Linda Henkel believes...the more easily people can take and access pictures...the less inclined they may be to remember the moment itself," Co.Design writes. " 'You're just kind of mentally discounting it--thinking, 'Well, the camera's got it,' " Henkel tells Co.Design."

Photo credit: Flickr user omcoc via Creative Commons

Henkel performed a study to test out her theory, which she calls the "photo-taking-impairment effect." She sent out a group of people to check out specific pieces in the Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University. Some pieces the participants were asked to observe and do nothing else. Others they were asked to photograph, and a few more came with instructions to photograph specific details. The next day, Henkel showed the participants the names of pieces they'd seen, and some they hadn't. She asked if they remembered seeing the pieces, and whether they photographed them.

"Simply put, they took the picture and missed the moment."

"Test participants recognized fewer objects they'd photographed whole than those they'd observed on their museum tour (from both the list of names and the roster of pictures)," Co.Design writes. "They were also much less accurate in recalling visual details of museum objects they'd photographed whole, compared with those they'd only observed. Simply put, they took the picture and missed the moment."

But there was a catch to the experiment.

If the test subjects zoomed in on the object they were meant to photograph, they remembered it just as well as those objects they hadn't photographed, and even remembered the details they weren't focused on. Henkel posits that the increase in attention needed to zoom in on an object overcomes the impairment, or lack of attentiveness, created by snapping off a photo of something as a whole.

Co.Design also points out that other studies have shown that looking at a photograph can help people remember more about an event than they would remember otherwise. It's just the act of taking that quick shot that can cause you to succumb to forgetfulness.