The surprising way taking a photo affects your memory of an event

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

A couple of years ago, a photo of an elderly woman attending a film premiere went viral online. 

In the image (below), the woman was standing in the front row with a massive grin on her face, attentively watching the premiere (which was for 2015 hit film, Black Mass) while surrounded by hordes of people, all duly pointing their phones towards the stage.

While it might not sound like typical fodder for a viral photograph, it struck a chord with people across the globe who saw the woman as a reminder to stay in the moment – and not waste it trying to get the perfect photo on our phone.

Because as we all know, taking photos of an event takes away from our enjoyment of the actual moment – leaving us with more images than actual memories of what took place.

Or does it?

The results of a new scientific study appear to turn what we thought we knew about the effect of taking photos on its head, by demonstrating that snapping a picture can actually improve our memory of the event.

The research, published in Psychological Science, studied two groups of people walking through a museum while listening to an audio guide. One group was able to take photos freely, while the other was asked to leave their cameras and phones outside.

Despite what we might think – and no doubt to the annoyance of those who can’t stand seeing blue phone screens saved around at every public event – the group taking photos was found to have a better memory of the exhibition than those who didn’t, although they had a poorer memory for the content of the audio guide.

Speaking to The New York Times, Alix Barasch, one of the authors and an assistant professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, said the results showed that concentrating on visuals while taking a photo can take our attention away from other senses such as hearing.

Essentially, taking photos of an event “actually causes you to encode visual content and remember it,” Dr. Barasch added.

The results are in direct contrast to previous research that suggested taking photos of an event can cause us to miss the moment, derailing our memory of what actually happened.

And speaking to in 2015, after Benedict Cumberbatch asked fans to stop filming during theatre performances, a Harley Street psychologist also alluded to the negative impact taking constant photos can have on our memory.

“Capturing experience through technology is a statistically ineffective way of doing so, with studies showing direct links to us experiencing less happiness when we focus so clearly on a technological way of recording the moment,” she said.

“This also impacts our long-term memories of an experience, as the shift in our thinking patterns throws imbalance into our memory. The best way to enjoy a moment is to be as present as possible in that moment.”

However, it is also worth noting that, in new research being published soon, Dr Barasch found that taking photos with the main aim of sharing them on social media does disrupt our memory and enjoyment of the moment.

Doing this can actually cause us anxiety during an event, as rather than simply enjoying whatever’s happening we’re “concerned about taking the perfect picture to get all the likes and comments”, she said.

And while the published research points to our visual memory being aided, our other senses might be dulled – which isn’t ideal when it comes to live gigs.

So there you have it – take as many photos as you like, unless you’re only doing it for social media approval.

Images: Rex Features / iStock


Share this article


Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter