If a picture is worth a thousand words, why did study participants who photographed artifacts remember less about them than people who just studied them more closely at the time?

Psychological scientist Linda Henkel of Fairfield University, Connecticut, observed that people take photos of just about everything, all the time.

“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,” she says.

Henkel decided to investigate the extent to which photographing events affects how we later remember them. And to do this, she set up an experiment in the Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University.

Participants in the study were given a tour of the museum and asked to take note of certain objects, either by examining them closely or taking a picture. The next day, they were asked to pick out the objects and describe them.

Those who had photographed things were less accurate in identifying them and could not answer as many questions about details on the objects, compared with the participants who had looked more closely.

Publishing the results in the journal Psychological Science, Henkel describes this as the “photo-taking impairment effect.” She explains:

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.”

Common sense would suggest that if you looked at the photos, it would trigger memories of what you have seen. And memory research seems to confirm this – but only if we actually make the time to look at the pictures later.

Henkel continues:

“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. In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos, rather than just amass them.”

A follow-up study replicated the findings but also demonstrated a further foible. If the photograph zoomed in on a specific detail, the photographer remembered more about the object as a whole, not just the part pictured.

“These results show how the ‘mind’s eye’ and the camera’s eye are not the same,” says Henkel.

Henkel also points out that the study participants were told to photograph certain objects, not driven by curiosity or interest. She wants to study whether actively choosing what to photograph plays any part in how much we remember.

She hopes that “the additional attentional and cognitive processes” will eliminate some, if not all, of the photo-taking impairment effect and adds:

This study was carefully controlled, so participants were directed to take pictures of particular objects and not others. But in everyday life people take photos of things that are important to them, that are meaningful, that they want to remember.”

Medical News Today reported on a recent study that suggested our brain processes visual information that it does not share with our conscious perception.