If you visit the Louvre without taking a picture of the Mona Lisa, did you really see it? Few have resisted the urge to join the pack of paparazzi angling for a shot of Da Vinci’s mysterious muse – even Beyoncé snapped one for the ’gram. But after our cameras have captured the painting, how well do we remember that enigmatic smile? What colour, even, are La Gioconda’s eyes?
In search of the answer, Linda Henkel, professor of psychology at Fairfield University in Connecticut, embarked on a simple experiment. During a guided tour of the school’s Bellarmine Museum of Art, participants were told to observe some objects while photographing others. The next day, Henkel tested their memories with free-recall, name- and photo-recognition exercises. The results were clear – or hazy, rather: People remembered
less about the art pieces that they’d photographed.
This photo-taking memory impairment isn’t limited to art galleries. “I think we do this in a variety of places, especially when we’re sightseeing,” says Henkel. From window-seat snapshots to Snapchats of windmills, “It’s almost like we’re collecting the photos as trophies of our experiences,” she says. Some of us can sum up our holiday conquests with the phrase “Veni, vidi, say cheese.” I came, I saw, I captured.
But not everyone is a point-and-shoot-everything voyager. “There are circumstances where taking photos can benefit your memory,” Henkel says. She points to another study by researchers that conducted a similar experiment, but instead of telling participants what to photograph, they let them decide. This freedom of choice actually enhanced the visual memory of the photographers.
It may all come down to intents and purposes. “My theory is that the effect of taking photos depends on your goals when you take them,” says Julie Soares, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Memory Lab. In a study to be published later this year, Soares found that people who take photos as visual souvenirs are more likely to associate vivid memories with them compared to photos they take solely for social media.
Her advice to trigger-happy travellers? “Take photos of stuff that you’ll want to look at later.” And the sooner you revisit and reflect upon them, the better your longterm memories of the experience will be, Henkel adds.