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Taking photographs can be bad for your memory, say scientists

Taking photographs can be bad for your memory, say scientists
(Image credit: Future)

Taking photographs may be great for capturing memories on pixels or film, but it can be bad for capturing them in your brain. In fact, shooting too many pictures can actually damage the brain's ability to retain memories, according to a new report. 

This is because when we take a photo we are "outsourcing" the memory capturing process to an external device, so we are training our brain that it doesn't need to record the memory. 

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"When people rely on technology to remember something for them, they're essentially outsourcing their memory," said Linda Henkel, Fairfield University psychological professor, to NPR (opens in new tab). "They know their camera is capturing that moment for them, so they don't pay full attention to it in a way that might help them remember."

Henkel first explored this idea in a 2013 whereby museum visitors found it more difficult to to recall objects they'd seen if they had taken a picture of them – a study that was replicated in 2017 and 2021. 

NPR draws parallels to the findings of a 2011 study on the "Google effect", which similarly finds that people's recall of information is worse when they know it can be retrieved from an outsourced agent such as the internet or external device.

It's not just the outsourcing itself that impairs our ability to capture memories; "attentional disengagement" can also be a factor, according to Julia Soares, Mississippi State University assistant psychology professor.

Essentially, the process of taking a photograph – focusing on the focusing, the composition, the lighting, the subject, the background and so on – takes up all the cognitive resources that would otherwise enable the brain to encode the memory.

"If you're distracted, you may have a photograph to prove you were there, but your brain may not remember," explains Elizabeth Loftus, psychological science professor at the University of California, Irvine. 

So there you have it. If you're capturing important moments with your camera, make sure to put it down for a bit so that your brain can capture them as well!

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The editor of Digital Camera World, James has 21 years experience as a magazine and web journalist and started working in the photographic industry in 2014 (as an assistant to Damian McGillicuddy, who succeeded David Bailey as Principal Photographer for Olympus). In this time he shot for clients as diverse as Aston Martin Racing, Elinchrom and L'Oréal, in addition to shooting campaigns and product testing for Olympus, and providing training for professionals. This has led him to being a go-to expert for camera and lens reviews, photographic and lighting tutorials, as well as industry analysis, news and rumors for publications such as Digital Camera Magazine (opens in new tab)PhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine (opens in new tab)N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine (opens in new tab)Digital Photographer (opens in new tab) and Professional Imagemaker, as well as hosting workshops and demonstrations at The Photography Show (opens in new tab). An Olympus and Canon shooter, he has a wealth of knowledge on cameras of all makes – and a fondness for vintage lenses and instant cameras.