Kicking off a series that explores the relationship between human memory and photography in the age of smartphone cameras, Audie Cornish talks to psychologist Linda Henkel about whether photographs impair our memory.
"As soon as you hit click on that camera, it's as if you've outsourced your memory," Henkel says. "Anytime we kind of 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."
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
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CORNISH: And that is the shutter click of the smartphone camera, arguably one of the defining sounds of our era.
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CORNISH: Phones are now marketed and sold for their camera feature.
CRAIG MOD: This is a magic box that lets me capture this moment.
CORNISH: That's writer and photographer Craig Mod. Now, he recently wrote a tribute to the excellence of his camera phone in the New Yorker magazine.
MOD: I was just shocked by how much was there. Really, the depth of it and the tonal qualities were just something that I hadn't expected was possible.
CORNISH: Reporter Molly Wood is covering the dramatic rise of the smartphone for the New York Times.
MOLLY WOOD: Digital photos made it easy to take photos of anything that you want and not worry about how good or bad the photo is. Then digital photos captured on a camera in your phone made it incredibly easy to do that even more - to include your food, to include your toe, to include a really big spider.
CORNISH: And, of course, to include yourself.
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CORNISH: Our phones are now filled with selfies, vacations, grocery lists.
WOOD: I have 2,500 photos on my phone and that is only because on Christmas Day I was forced to delete about a thousand.
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WOOD: Because I was out of space.
CORNISH: But those endless pictures got us thinking: are we actually remembering less as we take more photographs?
GEORGE CLOONEY: We've lost our sense of actually experiencing things. We're just constantly recording things.
CORNISH: That's the actor George Clooney. Two years ago he told my co-host Robert Siegel why camera phones have made it even harder for him to connect with fans.
CLOONEY: You'll reach out to shake out their hand and they've got a camera in their hand. And they don't even get their hand out because they're recording the whole time. And you can tell people that you've recorded Brad Pitt but it'd be very hard for you to say you actually met him because you were watching it all through your phone. I think that's too bad because I think people are experiencing less and recording more.
CORNISH: Well that idea - whether we are experiencing less as we record more - got psychologist Linda Henkel thinking. She researches human memory at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Her father was a photographer and she wanted to explore how photographs shape our memories. Professor Henkel began her experiment by sending groups of students to the university's art museum.
LINDA HENKEL: Everybody both looked at some objects and photographed some objects. And then I had them come back a day later over to my laboratory and I gave a memory test on, well, which objects do you remember seeing before? And what the results showed was what I 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 the statue's hands positioned or what was the statue wearing on its head. They remember fewer of the details if they took photos of them rather than if they had just looked at them.
CORNISH: What do you mean when you say impairment? I mean, just how bad is this?
HENKEL: Well, it's just the basic notion. You know, like everybody says, oh, I take photos so that I can remember my experiences. But they're actually, they're not only remembering fewer of the objects but I gave them questions specifically about the objects - and they were multiple choice questions, you know, so they could guess, you know - and they just didn't remember the visual details of the objects that they had photographed. And the explanation for this is when we rely on an external memory aid, you mentally count on the camera to remember for you. As soon as you hit click on that camera, it's as if you've outsourced your memory and you've said to your brain, you know what, you don't have to process any more information 'cause the camera's going to remember for me. So, any time we kind of 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.
CORNISH: But with another group of students you sent to the museum, they were armed with cameras but they had more specific directions - to zoom in on certain objects - and it made a difference.
HENKEL: Yeah. So, in the second study, what I did was people went on a tour of the museum. One-third of the objects they looked at but when they took the photo they were told to zoom in on a specific part of it. And when they concentrated their attention and they zoomed in on that feature, then you didn't see this photo-taking impairment effect. Their memory for which objects they had seen and for the details about the objects was just as good for the zoomed-in photos than for the ones they had just looked at. And I think it speaks to one of the ways in which paying more attention while we're taking photographs of things, it doesn't have to be that the act of taking a photo robs you of your memory. You know, if you pay attention to the thing that you're looking at, you know, and you're thinking about it, that can actually benefit memory.
CORNISH: Now, you've said that people mistake photographs for memories and that photographs are actually a memory retrieval tool. Explain what that means.
HENKEL: Well, when we talk about remembering an experience, the experience is so much richer than just the static thing that's caught in a photograph. You know, you go to the Grand Canyon, which is more magnificent than any photograph can take. No matter how beautiful the photograph is, it doesn't capture that feeling, that sense of awe that you have. So, a photo really is a pale version, one interpretation of reality. And so I think what winds up happening is, you know, human memories are shapeable. Human memories change over time. So, a photograph is a static image. You pull it out and it's the same thing each time, and that's great 'cause it's a reliable image of that. But human memory isn't like that. 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. So, human memory is much more dynamic than photographs are capable of.
CORNISH: So, Linda Henkel, what are you advocating here for? It's not that people should put away their smartphones altogether. I mean, there is still a place for this in modern life, obviously. People are capturing memories.
HENKEL: Absolutely. I think taking pictures is a wonderful thing to do because it provides such rich retrieval cues later on. So, when you take a picture of you standing next to the Grand Canyon, those are the clothes you were wearing and that is what the Grand Canyon looked like that day. I think it's just a matter of taking more mindful pictures, taking pictures that you want to remember, or just really reassessing why you're taking photos. I think the functions of photography are changing because of the technology. I don't think we're necessarily taking photos so we can remember our experiences. I think some of the photos we're taking are so we can brag about our experiences and post them on Instagram and, you know, Facebook and just show other people, oh, look at the fabulous life that I'm having. And so, you know, if those are the functions that you're trying to serve, the new technology may be doing that really well. But 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.
CORNISH: Psychologist Linda Henkel from Fairfield University. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
HENKEL: Oh, thanks for having me.
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CORNISH: Professor Henkel's paper is called "Point-and-Shoot Memories," and it was published in the journal Psychological Science. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.