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Taking too many photos may impede the memory of your tour or event

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Visit a museum these days and you'll see people using their smartphones and cameras to take pictures of works of art, archeological finds, historical artifacts, and any other object that strikes their fancy. The 'mind's eye' and the camera's eye are not the same, While taking a picture might seem like a good way to preserve the moment, recent research reports snapping too many photos could impair your memory of the event, says a 2013 study, "Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour," that appears February 2014 in the journal Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. An online version of the research also has been published since December 5, 2013.

The study suggests that museum-goers may want to put their cameras down. One study reports a photo-taking memory impairment effect from taking too many pictures of a memorable place, such as a tour, trip, or adventure. When you take photos, how does it interfere with your memory of that experience or the sights you see on your tour, outing, or event?

Taking too many photos may leave you with a worse memory for objects and certain, memorable details you might want to later recall

In that 2013 study, psychological scientist Linda A. Henkel of Fairfield University presents data showing that participants had worse memory for objects, and for specific object details, when they took photos of them. Henkel was inspired to conduct the research in part because of her own experiences.

"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," says Henkel, according to the December 9, 2013 news release, "No pictures, please: Taking photos may impede memory of museum tour." This led her to wonder about the extent to which capturing life events with a camera shapes what we later remember.

To find out, she set up an experiment in the Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University. Undergraduates were led on a tour around the museum and were asked to take note of certain objects, either by photographing them or by simply observing them. The next day, their memory for the objects was tested. The data showed that participants were less accurate in recognizing the objects they had photographed compared to those they had only observed.

Furthermore, they weren't able to answer as many questions about the objects' visual details for those objects they had photographed.

Henkel calls this the photo-taking impairment effect. "When people rely on technology to remember for them — counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves — it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences," she explains, according to the news release.

A second study replicated these findings, but it also presented an interesting twist: Taking a photograph of a specific detail on the object by zooming in on it with the camera seemed to preserve memory for the object, not just for the part that was zoomed in on but also for the part that was out of frame. "These results show how the 'mind's eye' and the camera's eye are not the same," says Henkel, according to the news release.

Henkel's lab also investigated whether the content of a photo, such as whether you are in it, affects later memory

She also wonders whether actively choosing what to photograph might influence what we remember, according to the news release. "This study was carefully controlled, so participants were directed to take pictures of particular objects and not others," says Henkel in the news release, "but in everyday life people take photos of things that are important to them, that are meaningful, that they want to remember."

Most museum-goers would probably argue that they take pictures so that they're able to look at them later. Doesn't reviewing the photos we've taken help us to remember? Memory research suggests that it would, but only if we actually took the time to do it:

"Research has suggested that the sheer volume and lack of organization of digital photos for personal memories discourages many people from accessing and reminiscing about them," says Henkel, according to the news release. "In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos, rather than just amass them."

Two studies examined whether photographing objects impacts what is remembered about them

Participants were led on a guided tour of an art museum and were directed to observe some objects and to photograph others, observes the study's abstract. Results showed a photo-taking-impairment effect: If participants took a photo of each object as a whole, they remembered fewer objects and remembered fewer details about the objects and the objects’ locations in the museum than if they instead only observed the objects and did not photograph them. However, when participants zoomed in to photograph a specific part of the object, their subsequent recognition and detail memory was not impaired,

The study's abstract also adds that in fact, memory for features that were not zoomed in on was just as strong as memory for features that were zoomed in on. This finding highlights key differences between people’s memory and the camera’s “memory” and suggests that the additional attentional and cognitive processes engaged by this focused activity can eliminate the photo-taking-impairment effect. The Association for Psychological Science (APS journal Psychological Science) is the highest ranked empirical journal in psychology.

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