How many pictures did you take on your last vacation? I maxed my phone’s memory six days into a trip to Hawaii recently, running out of space at the worst moment—right as our doors-off helicopter swooped out over the impossibly beautiful Nā Pali coast.
Unable to take photos, I vowed to pay attention and remember the feeling. Turns out, I may have been on to something.
For many of us, capturing images of every last moment we experience at home and abroad has become second nature as we seek to preserve memories. A report from Magisto, which makes an app for photo junkies to turn pictures into video, says the average smartphone user takes 150 photos every month (those of us on iPhones really burn it up with 182 a month). And worldwide, people are sharing two billion photos per day across top platforms, according to the Internet Trends Report.
But what if whipping out our phones and cameras actually has the opposite effect of what we hope?
Acclaimed writer and world traveler Paul Theroux told the Wall Street Journal just that. He never takes photos, he said, because “people who take pictures lose their capacity for close observation. Without a camera, you study a thing more carefully and remember it better. Taking a picture is a way of forgetting.”
A bit chilling when you stop and think about that. But is it true? Don’t all those vacation albums (analog or digital) help us remember? As an inveterate traveler and a nostalgic person, I’ve long sought to take a piece of my travels home via my camera lens. Have I been doing it wrong? I turned to Linda Henkel, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut who specializes in memory, for insight.
Dr. Henkel performed two experiments in 2013 that looked at the effect of taking photos in a museum on later recall. She found that participants who took photos of statues could recall fewer details later compared to those who spent a similar amount of time simply looking at the art. The exception, she found, was when they zoomed into a specific detail for their photo—that had no effect on the subjects’ memory.
So what’s going on when we take pictures? First, let’s look at what happens when we make a memory. As we’re in the midst of an experience, we’re taking information in and activating areas of the brain, Dr. Henkel explains. That process, called consolidation, takes time. “It’s almost like gelling, gluing together pieces into this coherent experience.” She points to concussion patients as an illustration: “They might not remember things that happened earlier that day because they haven’t gelled yet.”
It comes down to giving that information a chance to root, letting neuronal changes take place, she explains. And afterwards, “every time you retrieve that memory, you’re further strengthening the neurons that are creating that memory.” (You’re also changing the memory each time. Memories are malleable, she notes, and are merely recreations, “never representations of reality.”)
Now, on the other hand, what happens if you treat photos as trophies to capture, as Dr. Henkel describes the process of “walk and glance” and get your shot, and you don’t engage in the moment? You’re not following up on the experience with thoughts or reactions, and that consolidation never has a chance to take place.
In fact, despite the photo evidence, it’s almost like that experience never happened.
Not that that’s a bad strategy, she points out. We’ve been “externalizing our memory” for as long as there were tools to do so (and complaining about it for just as long.) Greeks and Romans thought we’d never be able to remember anything when handwriting came along, she says. But this mechanism is actually necessary.
“Our brains are not built to record every experience we have,” she explains. “We would be nonfunctional if we remembered every outfit we wore, every meal we had. Coming from a memory researcher this sounds terrible but it’s OK we don’t remember things. We’re having the experience, forming social bonds. Those things are very enduring, even if we don’t remember the specifics. You still get the benefits.”
The key, Dr. Henkel says, is finding the balance.
“A lot of people walk around saying, ‘I’m making memories,’” she says. “Maybe you should concentrate on having experiences that are worth remembering! It’s a different mindset. Some of it is live your life.”
But if we do want to build and hang on to a memory, there are steps we can take. And a camera can be a valuable tool, Dr. Henkel says. Go ahead and take the picture, but make a point of including context. It’s the small details that may not make for the prettiest photo—cars in the background, clutter on a counter—that can act as triggers that will cue retrieval later. Then, don’t move on immediately; stay in the moment and engage. What other memories does it raise? What’s your emotional reaction? Talk it over later, with your travel partner if you can. Look back over your pictures at the end of the day, write a few things, in a journal or maybe online. “Social networking is a kind of consolidation,” she says. Pick two or three of your favorite photos and write about how you felt. Then, later, “look at the photos!” she says. Better still, print them. And reminisce, especially with someone who shared the experience with you; this keeps memories alive and makes people feel closer.
But if you missed that once-in-a-lifetime photo opp, don’t worry. If it’s worthwhile for your brain to remember, Dr. Henkel says, you don’t need a photo to kickstart that memory. And she’s right. I can feel the wind roaring, smell the salt air, and see my white knuckles from that helicopter ride as vividly as if it just happened—even without the photos I thought I needed.