If you visit the Louvre without taking a picture of the Mona Lisa, did you really see it? Few have resisted the urge to join the pack of paparazzi angling for a shot of Da Vinci’s mysterious muse – even Beyoncé snapped one for the ’gram. But after our cameras have captured the painting, how well do we remember that enigmatic smile? What colour, even, are La Gioconda’s eyes?
In search of the answer, Linda Henkel, professor of psychology at Fairfield University in Connecticut, embarked on a simple experiment. During a guided tour of the school’s Bellarmine Museum of Art, participants were told to observe some objects while photographing others. The next day, Henkel tested their memories with free-recall, name- and photo-recognition exercises. The results were clear – or hazy, rather: People remembered less about the art pieces that they’d photographed.
This photo-taking memory impairment isn’t limited to art galleries. “I think we do this in a variety of places, especially when we’re sightseeing,” says Henkel. From window-seat snapshots to Snapchats of windmills, “It’s almost like we’re collecting the photos as trophies of our experiences,” she says. Some of us can sum up our holiday conquests with the phrase “Veni, vidi, say cheese.” I came, I saw, I captured.