Why Benedict Cumberbatch is right: the best way to enjoy a moment is to stop filming and be as present as possible

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Amy Swales
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Benedict Cumberbatch's plea earlier this week for fans to put down their phones and cameras during his theatre performances quickly made headlines, unsurprisingly given he asked those waiting outside the stage door to spread his videoed speech via social media.

And it turns out his request, which you can watch in the video below, has benefits further to simply enabling the actors onstage to concentrate. Experts tell that filming something actively impedes enjoyment of the moment - and reveals unappealing ideas about society's vanity.

The world-famous actor is currently appearing in Shakespeare's Hamlet, and his turn in the title role at the Barbican has gone down as the fastest-selling ticket in London theatre history.

But clearly frustrated, Cumberbatch recently chose to address the distracting and “blindingly obvious” use of cameras during his performance, explaining to waiting fans that the theatre would throw out those contravening the rules on filming.

He added: “I can’t give you what I want to give you, which is a live performance which you will hopefully remember in your minds and brains, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, rather than on your phones.”

Harley Street psychologist Dr Becky Spelman says the impulse to record experiences rather than rely on our own memories is certainly a natural instinct, but has become warped towards showing others what an amazing time we're having.

“Human beings have always sought to capture moments that intrigue, or feel momentous, right from the very dawn of our consciousness,” she explains. “When we see cave paintings and carvings of the rising sun, we see an early man making sense of the world. We see the same across millennia, with artefacts, art and literature through to photography and videography.

“However, over that time we have seen our belief in what is important significantly shift from the group to the individual, as we as a society have become intrinsically self-centred.

“Western civilisation has never lived in as good a time as we do today in terms of medicine, technology, and opportunity, and the relative comfort of our lives has made us collectively less concerned about shelter, warmth, food and survival, and more worried about how we are perceived by others.

“Today’s constant drive to record memories is partly about recording our own lives for future posterity, but also so we can show others what a great life we lead.”

Dr Spelman believes Sherlock star Cumberbatch's huge celebrity has a lot to do with audience members forgetting the usual social conventions of a theatre and whipping their phones out - not only to record the moment, but to get a “souvenir”.

She tells “His global celebrity is exceptionally high, and as our society venerates the famous, he consequently gets far more public attention than most actors playing the role of Hamlet. This has its upsides, but also brings with it the unnaturally altered minds of us as a society, who almost without exception are complicit in our putting celebrities on pedestals.

“This hysteria means we lose many of the inhibitions we usually use when interacting with society, from asking for a photo with a stranger, to filming someone at work in an inappropriate place like the theatre. Research shows that, in this case, many people filming are not doing so to accurately record the actor’s famous soliloquy, but to simply get a souvenir that shows others that they were there.”

But she adds that it's worth noting the younger fans Cumberbatch's fame has attracted to the theatre are likely much more involved with technology than previous generations and thus the boundaries might be blurry.

“Younger people place more emphasis on their digital lives, and are more likely to capture many moments of every day via photo or video. Benedict Cumberbatch’s huge acting successes have captured the attention of this younger demographic, and for many it may be the first time they are in a theatre, let alone watching Shakespeare, so perhaps there are etiquette issues that are simply not understood.”

And just as we may have suspected upon seeing the sea of glowing mobile phone screens waving in the air during a gig, Dr Spelman confirms that's it's extremely unlikely someone filming an experience can enjoy and connect with it as much as someone simply experiencing it. Additionally, we're ironically damaging our own long-term memories of it too.

“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 explains.

“From the squint we normally adopt when doing this, which subconsciously changes our body language to a more anxious facial posture, to the way our brain patterns switch from the right side (our creative and enjoyment side) to the left side (our processing side), we derive less enjoyment when we metaphorically step out of a moment.

“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.”

Ultimately, it could be argued that we're making a rod for our own backs if we're concentrating so much on recording moments for other people to see than on our own happiness, but that's obviously not to say that our relationship with technology can't be healthy and infinitely useful.

Dr Spelman simply advises checking how much of our communication with friends and family happens in person or through a screen. “Technology has never been the bad guy in our society, and it is no different today. Technology has brought us the wheel, the printing press, space travel, and the internet, and it will continue to shape the future of humanity.

“However, our relationship with technology can be damaging, and we should be mindful of how it can impact how we look at both the world and ourselves.”

Dr Becky Spelman is a psychologist and cognitive behavioural psychotherapist. You can find her website at 

Words: Amy Swales / Images: Rex Features, Dr Becky Spelman

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Amy Swales

Amy Swales is a freelance writer who likes to eat, drink and talk about her dog. She will continue to plunder her own life and the lives of her loved ones for material in the name of comedy, catharsis and getting pictures of her dog on the internet.