Los Angeles blogger Rebecca Woolf uses her blog, Girl's Gone Child, as a window into her family's life. Naturally, it includes oodles of pictures of her four children.
She says she's probably taken tens of thousands of photos since her oldest child was born. And she remembers the moment when it suddenly clicked — if you will — that she was too absorbed in digital documentation.
"I remember going to the park at one point, and looking around ... and seeing that everyone was on their phones ... not taking photographs, but just — they had a device in their hands," she recalls.
"I was like, 'Oh, God, wait. Is this what it looks like?' " she says. "Even if it's just a camera, is this how people see me? ... Are [my kids] going to think of me as somebody who was behind a camera?"
Today, Woolf still takes plenty of pictures, but she tries to not let the camera get in the middle of a moment, she says.
Effect On Childhood Memory
With parents flooding their camera phones with hundreds of photos — from loose teeth to hissy fits to each step in the potty training process — how might the ubiquity of photos change childhood memories?
Maryanne Garry, a psychology professor at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, is trying to figure that out. For years, she's studied the effects of photography on our childhood memories.
"I think that the problem is that people are giving away being in the moment," she says.
Those parents at the park taking all those photos are actually paying less attention to the moment, she says, because they're focused on the act of taking the photo.
"Then they've got a thousand photos, and then they just dump the photos somewhere and don't really look at them very much, 'cause it's too difficult to tag them and organize them," she says. "That seems to me to be a kind of loss."
Not just a loss for parents, but for their kids as well.
"If parents are giving away some of their role as the archivist of the child's memory, then they're giving away some of their role as one of the key people who helps children learn how to talk about their experiences," she says.
Photographing More, Experiencing Less
The idea that we are experiencing less as we record more got psychologist Linda Henkel thinking. Her father was a photographer, and she wanted to explore how photographs shape our memories.
Henkel, who researches human memory at Fairfield University in Connecticut, began an experiment by sending groups of students to the university's art museum. The students observed some objects and photographed others. Then, back at the laboratory, they were given a memory test.
Henkel found what she called a "photo-taking impairment effect."
"The objects that they had taken photos of — they actually remembered fewer of them, and remembered fewer details about those objects. Like, how was this statue's hands positioned, or what was this statue wearing on its head. They remembered fewer of the details if they took photos of them, rather than if they had just looked at them," she says.
Henkel says her students' memories were impaired because relying on an external memory aid means you subconsciously count on the camera to remember the details for you.
"As soon as you hit 'click' on that camera, it's as if you've outsourced your memory," she says. "Any time we ... count on these external memory devices, we're taking away from the kind of mental cognitive processing that might help us actually remember that stuff on our own."
Henkel says it's also a mistake to think of photographs as memories. The photo will remain the same each time to you look at it, but memories change over time. Henkel likens it relying on photos to remember your high school graduation.
"Each time I remember what my high school graduation was like, I might be coloring and changing that memory because of my current perspective — because of new ideas that I have or things that I learned afterwards," she says. "Human memory is much more dynamic than photographs are capable of."
But Henkel doesn't want people to stop taking photos. They're still valuable tools that can provide "rich retrieval clues" later on, she says. Instead, she'd like us to be more mindful when taking pictures in the first place.
"I don't know that the new technology is serving the functions of preserving memories quite as well, unless you take the extra step and actually look at the photos, and revive those memories from them."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
And this week we've been looking at the idea of memory in the age of digital photography. When we're always documenting, are we remembering more or less? Today, we're tackling memory, photography and childhood. With parents flooding their camera phones with hundreds of photos, from every angle of babies head to loose teeth, to hissy fits, to each step in the process of potty training. How will the ubiquity of photos change childhood memories?
REBECCA WOOLF: I mean when my twins were born, I was taking so many photos. I think because I was like I needed proof that it was happening almost.
CORNISH: Rebecca Woolf, she writes and share photos at her site Girl's Gone Child. Pull it out and you'll see oodles of photos, candid everyday life with her family of six. Ask her how many she's taken since her oldest child was born.
WOOLF: Gosh, I mean, tens of thousands probably. I don't even know.
CORNISH: For years, Woolf was devoted to film. Forget digital.
WOOLF: I loved the mystery of getting that film back. It was magical to open up that proof sheet. The instant gratification of a digital camera is amazing but it also - you lose all of that. You feel less involved.
CORNISH: And yet, once Woolf started taking digital photographs she never went back. She admits she went a little shutter crazy. And she remembers the moment when it suddenly clicked, if you will, that she was too absorbed in digital documentation.
WOOLF: So I remember going to the park at one point and seeing that everyone was on their phones. And I was like, oh God, wait. Is this how people see me, as like the person - and not even that but, like, my kids? Like, are they going to think of me as somebody who was behind the camera? And I didn't want that to be the case at all.
CORNISH: Woolf cuts herself some slack, reminds herself this isn't something that we grew up with.
WOOLF: And I don't think any of us really know how to manage it. Or we're trying to figure it out.
CORNISH: I spoke to one of the many trying to figure it out. Psychologist Maryanne Garry.
MARYANNE GARRY: I think that the problem is that people are giving away being in the moment.
CORNISH: They're outsourcing it to their devices.
GARRY: Yeah, and then device is only the capture so much, right? And then if you outsource it to the device and then you look at what the device produces, then what have you done? You've just jettisoned it.
CORNISH: Garry is a psychology professor at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. She's studied the effects of photography on our childhood memories for years. When she sees those parents at the park taking all those photos...
GARRY: I wish they'd put the camera down and just watch what was happening.
GARRY: It's the idea that they think what they're doing is amplifying their memory. And I worry that what they're doing is just giving their memory away. So if they're paying less attention because what they've got to do is take all the photos, they're splitting their attention between what's going on and the act of taking a picture.
Then they've got a thousand photos. And then they just dump the photos somewhere and don't really look at them very much, 'cause it's too difficult to tag them and organize them. That seems to me to be a kind of loss.
CORNISH: Isn't it a loss for the kids?
GARRY: A loss - I think it could be a loss for everybody. If parents are giving away some of their role as the archivist of the child's memory and then they're giving away some of their role as one of the key people who helps children learn how to talk about their experiences, then I mean, it could be a loss for everybody.
CORNISH: Also, parents, it's usually their job to kind of build memories with kids, right? Which they will do, I guess, when they're reviewing photos is one way of doing it. If we're sort of clicking with abandon and not reviewing, are we depriving our kids of something?
GARRY: Yeah, that's what I'm saying. I mean, parents carry around our memories for us when we're too little to carry them around for ourselves. And over the course of our lives, they slowly given them back to us. And if they're actually not paying enough attention because they're consumed with taking all these photographs, because they think they're documenting, then it might be that they're doing the exact opposite - which is they're not even remembering just by virtue of being someplace or watching your soccer game or at the school play.
Normally when you see a parent do is sit down with a young child and say: So how was that. And, you know, even for events that just happened or events that happened long ago. You remember when we went to Disneyland, and then you had breakfast with Chip and Dale, right, and then what happened. Right, and then you remember he stole your waffle.
So what you see them doing is, again, feeding the child the memory because they don't have the ability to remember it themselves. And they don't have the ability then to learn to even weave things into a storyline, you know, with a beginning, a middle, and an end - like any kind of plot. That's the kind of thing you learn from your parents. And if the parents aren't doing that, then it's going to possibly mean that children have - it takes them longer to develop that skill.
CORNISH: So it's not quite the same as handing a child your phone and saying: Here, go ahead, look through the pictures.
GARRY: Right, because children will know what to do with that. They need to learn to weave a storyline around their experiences. So, I mean, on one hand, you could say, well, photos provide the perfect springboard, the perfect opportunity to say: Look what happened and look what happened next, and look what happened next. But if you've got a thousand photos of something, then you're not likely to do that.
Nor are you likely to wade through to find the perfect two or three photos to sit down and review them. So it would probably be better if we were a little bit more selective about the photos that we took.
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CORNISH: Maryanne Garry, she's a psychology professor at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. Thanks so much for talking with us.
GARRY: Sure, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.