How taking pictures affects your memory

I really found the statistics in the first couple minutes of the video above from one of my favorite vlogger’s, Vsauce.

How many pictures do you think you take a week? 10, 100, 500? Of course some weeks are different than others. You’re not likely to take a lot of pictures during a typical work week, but many more during vacation or something you want to remember. That last point is exactly what I’m curious about today.

Why do we take pictures? To create a cue that will allow us to remember those experiences. I’m even more interested in the question of how does taking pictures influence your memory for the event? Does it enhance your memory for the event? Does it distort your memory for the event because you had you eye glued to a view finder? I’ve been thinking for a while that the recent explosion of digital cameras and the ability to take as many pictures as you want for essentially free is significantly changing how we remember our lives. For those who lived during the time when pictures cost money to take and develop, you know that you had to be picky about what pictures you took. You certainly couldn’t just give your 3 year old the camera and let them take a whole role of film. It makes sense that experiences that were documented with film are likely remembered differently than experiences documented with digital pictures. There are a couple reasons I think our memory could be affected by taking more pictures:

1.) Film pictures give you less cues to take you back to the experience because you took less pictures.
2.) Digital pictures are easier to revisit, share, and store. Every time you revisit an experience it makes a stronger trace in your memory.

It is also possible that having pictures of all of the interesting events in your life might not help you any better than just remembering that you participated in that event in the first place. Another possibility is that taking pictures of everything, all of the time muddles up your memory with too many cues which leads to worse specific memory overall. Who knows? Sounds like a research question to me. I’d love to do a study of how evolving camera technologies have effected the specificity of people’s memories from different generations. I’d expect that the extent to which pictures enhance one’s memory increases with the decreasing cost of taking a picture across the generations.

What is your intuition? Do you think that taking pictures helps your memory? Or does it muddle everything together? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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2 responses to “How taking pictures affects your memory

  1. I believe photography helps me experience–and thus remember–experiences better. Besides the creative aspect that involves more of “me” than just my eyes, it provides a framework of sorts for me to hang the memories on. And certainly to be able to go back to the photos to recall details helps reinforce the memory.

  2. I have found that photographs that do not contain people do not trigger specific memories. When I was about 10 we went to Colorado Springs for a vacation. I took lots of pictures of the foothills of the
    Rockies and a few of the family. Only the ones with people trigger any specific memories. I think that the relationships are the triggers and not the pictures themselves,

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