Long Reads

Instagram vs reality: how filtering photos could be causing memory loss

We use Instagram all the time. But could filtering images for social media be causing memory loss, as well as affecting our self-image? As new research reveals 96% of women have filtered their photos to improve the appearance of their skin, Stylist investigates…

Take a moment and think about the last time you posted a photo to Instagram

Did you filter the image before you posted it? Did you adjust the brightness, the contrast, the saturation?

Of course you did – let’s be honest, we all do it. We want our skies to be bluer, our ice creams more pastel, and our sunsets more pink. After all, sharing gorgeous images is what Instagram is all about, and sometimes our photos need a little Valencia to make them truly shine.

Instagram is so full of filtered and edited photos that it’s become its own world. After all, how many times have you heard the phrase ‘Instagram versus Reality’? Instagram is like reality on crack – it presents a brighter and more beautiful version of the world around us. But this might not necessarily be a good thing.

editing photos on instagram
How Instagram affects our memory: Could editing photos be causing memory loss on Instagram?

More often than not, when we look back at the images we share on Instagram, we forget what the original photos look like – after all, the evidence of what the picture shows is right there in front of us. We might forget that, in reality, that day was slightly overcast, or that sea wasn’t quite that blue. We might look back on a photo that shows us beaming at a festival and believe we were happier in that moment than we actually were.

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Essentially, editing our photos might be causing us to view our world through these filters, distorting our real memories to make them align more closely to the images on our feed, rather than what we actually saw.

“Applying filters to images probably does change the way we reflect on those images and what we think about them,” muses Kim Wade, a cognitive psychologist from the University of Warwick who specialises in research about memory.

“Filters can change our memories to be more aligned with what our photos look like, or how we’re creating our image in our photos,” she adds.     

How filtered photos affect our body image

This could have very real implications for our self-image and how we view ourselves, especially if we’re sharing selfies and photos of ourselves to our feeds. After all, if we’re frequently looking at filtered images of our bodies and faces, the reality of how we look can become overwritten in our minds. 

It’s no surprise that a 2016 review of 20 studies on body image issues found that photo-based activities, such as sharing images of ourselves on Instagram, could increase negative thoughts about our looks.

woman taking selfie
How Instagram affects our memory: The average millennial will take over 25,000 selfies in their lifetime

“Given what we know about how photographs can influence what we believe and what we remember, there’s good reason to believe that simply filtering photographs and depicting ourselves in certain ways can actually make us feel very different about ourselves and who we are,” Wade explains.

“Typically, we apply filters to make ourselves look better, whatever ‘looking better’ means. We want to look more attractive and desirable. But this can have implications on how we consider ourselves, as well as how we remember events and other people.

“Over time, a filtered photo could become the more accepted true depiction of reality, just like any other sort of widely adopted photo could.”

With the average millennial taking over 25,000 selfies in their lifetimes, a large amount of which are likely to be filtered and shared online, this is particularly worrying. Some women have become so convinced their filtered faces look better than their real ones that they have even tried to get surgery to change their appearance, a trend dubbed as ‘Snapchat Dysmorphia’ by Dr Tijon Esho.

All of this isn’t helped by the fact that we often can’t distinguish between real and edited photos. Wade’s work has led her to discover that people are “very, very poor” at noticing when photos have been edited – for example, we don’t tend to notice if the shadows in a photo look inconsistent, or if the angles have been changed. A number of influencers have recently been called out for editing their photos, with Tupi Saravia admitting last month that she edits the same series of clouds into her photos, while Casey Sosnowski’s sister revealed that a photo of her on a “hike” was actually taken in their back garden.

“It’s interesting that [we don’t spot these changes] despite knowing how regularly people edit their photos,” Wade says. “We all know the extent to which photos get enhanced, or substantially changed. But even this doesn’t protect us from falling prey to believing adopted images are genuine.”

Edited photos and the mystery of false memories

Remarkably, Wade’s work has found that an edited photo might not just distort our memory of an event, but even plant false memories in our minds. Wade references a series of studies she undertook in which she presented adults with a batch of photos from their childhoods, and asked them to reminisce about everything they could remember about the events shown in each photograph. The researchers would show the adults real photos from their childhood, but sneak in one edited photo that appears to show them on a hot air balloon ride.

hot air balloons
How Instagram affects our memory: Researchers were able to plant false memories in people's minds by using edited photographs

After being shown these images three times over the course of a week, around a third of the adults actually started to believe the hot air balloon photo was real, and that they had been on the ride as a child. Even more remarkably, some of these adults would then tell corresponding stories about what they believe happened on the ride, from who was there, to what they saw and how they felt at the time.

“We have a whole variety of studies like this that show people are likely to buy into a fake photo and develop a memory of something that never happened,” says Wade. “They create a whole fake memory of a childhood event.”

Essentially, Wade explains, this happens when we spend a large amount of time repeatedly imagining an event – the more we think about it, the more we imagine it happening, and the more plausible it becomes.

“The more time you spend imagining a fictitious event, the more that mental experience begins to feel like a real memory,” Wade adds. “It becomes more embellished and richer, meaning that when you think about it, it feels like a real memory – even if it’s just something you’ve created in your mind.

“You get to a point where you don’t know if it’s something you’ve simply imagined that has been suggested to you, or a genuine memory.”

In an era of fake news, this can have far-reaching implications.

woman taking a selfie
How Instagram affects our memory: Happily, there is a positive side to photos and selfies

Photos can have a positive effect on memory

But happily, it’s not all bad news. Just in the same way that looking at edited photos can affect our memory, spending time looking at real photos can actually boost our memory.

“Reviewing genuine photos can be good for our memory, and can even help people with memory deficits,” explains Wade. “When people with Alzheimer’s or dementia review photos of everyday things that they’ve done, it can help them to remember what their life is like on a day to day basis – it’s good for their mental health.

“Essentially, we really trust photos.”

So, maybe it’s time to drop the filters (or at least, use them less) and learn to love our real, unedited photos. If only to create more of those real, unedited memories.

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Kim Wade spoke at the British Science Festival, which ran from 11-13 September. You can find out more information here.

Images: Getty, May van Millingen, Leighann Renee, Unsplash

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