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Taking photos may impede memory of museum tour

Press Trust of India  |  Washington 

Museum-goers may want to put their cameras down!

People have worse memory for objects, and for specific object details, when they take photos of them, a new study has found.

The study was conducted by psychological scientist Linda Henkel of Fairfield University, US.

"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," said Henkel.

This led her to wonder about the extent to which capturing life events with a camera shapes what we later remember.

In an experiment in the Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University, undergraduates were led on a tour around the museum and were asked to take note of certain objects, either by photographing them or by simply observing them.

The next day, their memory for the objects was tested.

The data showed that participants were less accurate in recognising the objects they had photographed compared to those they had only observed.

Furthermore, they weren't able to answer as many questions about the objects' visual details for those objects they had photographed.

Henkel called this the "photo-taking impairment effect".

"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," she explained.

A second study replicated these findings, but it also presented an interesting twist: Taking a photograph of a specific detail on the object by zooming in on it with the camera seemed to preserve memory for the object, not just for the part that was zoomed in on but also for the part that was out of frame.

"These results show how the 'mind's eye' and the camera's eye are not the same," said Henkel.

Most museum-goers would probably argue that they take pictures so that they're able to look at them later. Doesn't reviewing the photos we've taken help us to remember?

Memory research suggests that it would, but only if we actually took the time to do it.

"Research has suggested that the sheer volume and lack of organisation of digital photos for personal memories discourages many people from accessing and reminiscing about them," said Henkel.

"In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos, rather than just amass them," Henkel said.

The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

First Published: Tue, December 10 2013. 13:30 IST