Do Snap–happy Travellers Have Blurrier Holiday Memories?

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.

March 25, 2020
Animated illustration of people snapping photos on their phones at an art gallery

But not everyone is a point–and–shoot–everything voyager. “There are circumstances where taking photos can benefit your memory,” Henkel says. She points to another study by researchers that conducted a similar experiment, but instead of telling participants what to photograph, they let them decide. This freedom of choice actually enhanced the visual memory of the photographers.

It may all come down to intents and purposes. “My theory is that the effect of taking photos depends on your goals when you take them,” says Julia Soares, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz’s Memory Lab. In a study to be published later this year, Soares found that people who take photos as visual souvenirs are more likely to associate vivid memories with them compared to photos they take solely for social media.

Her advice to trigger–happy travellers? “Take photos of stuff that you’ll want to look at later.” And the sooner you revisit and reflect upon them, the better your long–term memories of the experience will be, Henkel adds.

Photographic Mnemonics — How to take more intentional vacation snapshots.

  • Be selective “Back when it cost money to buy film and get it developed (and you only had 24 shots on a roll), photography was more precious,” says Linda Henkel. As a result, we were more selective about what we took photos of. She recommends consciously making each digital exposure count.

  • Capture context An abstract assemblage of clouds won’t jog the memory the way a city skyline can. “The things that provide context will give you richer retrieval cues down the line,” says Henkel. Add background details to help stir up meaning later on – and that goes for selfies, too.

  • Delete spares Your camera roll shouldn’t overwhelm you. “Personal–information–management research shows that people take so many photos these days that they have a hard time finding them when they want to,” says Julia Soares. Clean up photographic clutter by choosing your best shots and ditching doubles the same day that you shoot.