Make More Memories by Taking Fewer Photos
Well, that's what most people think anyway. But is it true? Is it possible for us to ever take too many photos?
... my husband on the living room floor, imitating our 5-month-old daughter's attempts to roll over for the first time. She kept fruitlessly swinging her leg over her body, and he, so much larger, copied her every move as well as the little grunts of effort she was making. The pair of them were so funny I laughed until I couldn't breathe.
I have no video, but the memory is absolutely clear in my mind.
I can picture...
... the huge pile of autumn leaves my two children made at the end of their backyard slide, and their shrieks of glee as they climbed and slid down into the colorful heap, then ran around to do it all over again. The sky is blue, the sun is gentle, the breeze is cool, and their joy is infectious.
It's not on video, but my brain can replay the scene with ease.
I can hear...
... my son's star turn as Willie Wonka in a high school stage production, and the time my grandson (then 4) regaled us with a long list of careers he might have when he's grown, beginning with "a scientist like Daddy" and "a teacher like Papa" and on through fireman, builder, "cooker," truck driver, and at least a dozen others. Each possibility was introduced in his little voice with "Aaaand howdabout . . . ."
No videos – just vivid memories.
Sometimes we miss the first step toward making a memory.
Don't misunderstand me. I treasure old family photos, which I've archived in scrapbooks that I can peruse whenever I want to. I have hundreds of photos and dozens of short videos on my smart phone.
But a funny thing happens when we start taking pictures. Constant photo-taking may actually mess with our memories.
The first step toward forming a lasting memory is paying attention. Without attention, our brains won't store the sensations we experience in the world around us.
The brain creates long-term memories by linking neurons. The stronger the memory, the stronger the connections. These neurological connections include every sensation that forms a memory – not just what the scene looks like, but what it sounds like, what it smells like, and what it feels like to view or participate in the event.
A 2018 study from Dartmouth University made it clear that the act of taking photos reduced participants' memories of what they experienced. Why? Apparently when we focus on getting a good picture, we're tuned in to the device, distracted from what we're seeing, and taking almost no notice of sounds, smells, or anything else. I'm sure you've seen people at a gorgeous vista or ancient monument, staring at their phones. They may actually be missing out on the place itself.
When a device stores a memory, we don't.
Another reason taking photos or videos may reduce our memories is a concept called cognitive offloading. This is the idea that we're literally outsourcing our mental capabilities to a computer, smart phone, or other device.
In 2011, the journal Science published a study that found that when people are told a computer will save a piece of information, they're less likely to remember it for themselves. When we can Google a fact, we tend not to learn it, meaning that we have less knowledge available from our own inner resources.
Don't believe it? How many people's phone numbers do you have memorized?
So okay, maybe you don't care if you can remember people's phone numbers or the year that World War II ended. But how much of your life do you want your brain to remember? And how many memories are you willing to offload to an external source?
What gets ignored does not get remembered.
It's a trade-off. If I take a picture or a video, I can share it and relive that experience with others. But taking photos can narrow my attention.
Photos may serve as memory cues later on, but they don't tell the whole story. While we're busy taking dozens of photos, we're failing to listen, smell, touch, or taste the new place we're visiting or the wonderful event that's happening. We might create some visual memories, but we're more likely to ignore those other stimuli. And even our visual memories may be reduced to what we captured with a camera. The staying power of a clear long-term memory may be lost.
When we don't fully participate in real life, our brains can't make the multitude of neurological connections that will give us a vivid memory to savor. When we're hunting for the perfect Instagram shot, we're not always paying attention to the beautiful, complex details that make up the moment.
So those details are lost.
Once upon a time...
I remember how tired my knees and thighs got as we hiked back down the John Muir Trail to Happy Isles, and how badly I needed to use the restroom by the time we made it there. I remember the enjoyable banter with my husband's cousins who accompanied us, and the tireless energy of my teenage brother-in-law.
These aren't photos or videos – and they're still in my head more than 35 years later.
To form lasting memories, don't just look through a camera lens. Listen, smell, touch, and taste. Be mindful. Put your camera down and fully participate in real life. There's no such thing as too many good memories.
Updated June 2023