The New Yorker:
I can’t remember exactly when I stopped carrying a notebook. Sometime in the past year, I gave up writing hurried descriptions of people on the subway, copying the names of artists from museum walls and the titles of books in stores, and scribbling down bits of phrases overheard at restaurants and cafés.
It’s not that my memory improved but, instead, that I started archiving these events and ideas with my phone, as photographs. Now, if I want to research the painter whose portraits I admired at the museum, I don’t have to read through page after page of my chicken scratch trying to find her name. When I need the title of a novel someone recommended, I just scroll back to the day we were at the bookstore together.
Digital photography, endless and inexpensive, has made us all into archivists. And the very act of taking a photograph, now so common, affects how we remember an event. A study by Linda Henkel, which appeared in Psychological Science last year, tried to measure the effect of photography on memory. “Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour” documented Henkel’s findings after taking two groups of students through an art museum. The first group was instructed to observe works of art for thirty seconds, the other group observed the art for twenty seconds and then photographed it; the next day, both groups were surveyed about what they remembered.
Henkel found “a photo-taking-impairment effect”—photographing the object led students to remember fewer objects and fewer details than those who simply observed the art. In a second study, she asked students to observe the objects and then to photograph them using the camera’s zoom. Instructing students to zoom in reversed the impairment effect, improving the memories of the photographers over those of the observers. The study is small but fascinating: taking photographs changes the way we experience the world, but reviewing them can change the way we remember the experience. In the article, Henkel relates her findings to other research on taking notes: “Similar to the finding that reviewing notes taken during class boosts retention better than merely taking notes (Bui, Myerson, & Hale, 2013; Knight & McKelvie, 1986), it may be that our photos can help us remember only if we actually access and interact with them, rather than just amass them.”
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