Sure, taking pictures captures the visual details of our memories, but a new study suggests pressing that shutter button improves visual memory. The problem? The improved visual recall is at the expense of auditory memories. The data comes from a new study led by New York University Stern School of Business professor Alixandra Barasch and recently published in Physiological Science.
With the dominance of digital and the slowing rate of actually printing photos, the researchers wanted to ask, “what happens if we take photographs, but never actually look at them again?” To answer that, the group completed multiple studies that asked half of the participants to take photos and then tested their memory compared to the half that didn’t take photos.
The first study led 294 people through a museum with an audio guide then asked several questions at the end of the tour to see what each participant remembered. Those that were instructed to take at least 10 pictures during the tour were able to visually identify more of the artifacts from the museum, but didn’t score as high on the details that were presented inside the audio of the tour.
The researchers conducted a second, more controlled study leading participants through a virtual tour of an art gallery, with half asked to take pictures using an on-screen camera. The results supported the first study, with those that used the virtual camera able to recall more visual details but fewer auditory details.
In variations of those studies, some participants were told their photos would be deleted after the tour and others were asked to “take a mental picture,” with both groups showing more visual recall than the participants that were not instructed to take pictures at all.
“These findings suggest that having a camera changes how people approach an experience in a fundamental way,” the researchers said. “Even when people don’t take a photo of a particular object, like a sculpture, but have a camera with them and the intention to take photos, they remember that sculpture better than people who did not have a camera with them.”
The study’s authors concluded that taking pictures doesn’t necessarily reduce the ability to recall that experience, but focuses that recall on visual details more than those who do not take pictures. The results are the opposite of a similar study that suggested taking photos impairs memory, but didn’t dig into which memories are affected.
The study is part of a growing number that take a look at how modern technology influences cognitive ability and memory, like one study that suggests the internet impacts our ability to learn.