“Our research is novel because it shows that photo-taking itself improves memory for visual aspects of an experience but can hurt memory for non-visual aspects, like auditory details,” researchers said.
Previous research has suggested that being able to take photographs or consult the internet may allow us to outsource our memory, freeing up cognitive resources but potentially impairing our ability to remember.
Researchers, including those from New York University in the US, hypothesised that this offloading effect may hold for factual information, but might not apply when it comes to the experiences we deliberately choose to photograph.
“People take photos specifically to remember these experiences, whether it is a fun dinner with friends, a sightseeing tour, or something else,” they said.
In one experiment, the researchers had 294 participants tour a real-life museum exhibit of Etruscan artifacts. The participants stashed their belongings before starting the tour but some were allowed to keep a camera on them.
Those with a camera could photograph anything they wanted in the exhibit and were told to take at least 10 photos. As the participants toured the exhibit, they listened to an accompanying audio guide.
At the end of the tour, they answered multiple-choice questions asking them to identify objects they had seen or complete factual statements from the audio guide.
The results, published in the journal Psychological Science, showed that those who took photos visually recognised more of the objects compared with those who did not have a camera.
However, they also remembered less auditory information than their camera-less peers.
These findings provided evidence that taking pictures can enhance visual memory.
To test their hypotheses in a more controlled environment, the researchers designed a virtual art-gallery tour.
Participants navigated through the gallery on screen as they would in real life and some were able to take pictures of what they saw on screen by clicking an on-screen button.
Those who were able to take pictures were better at recognising what they saw and worse at remembering what they heard, compared to those who could not take pictures.
When the researchers examined visual memory for specific objects, they found that participants who were able to take pictures performed better on visual memory tasks regardless of whether the objects in question were the most or least photographed.
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