Taking photos can impair your memory of events, study reveals

Live in the moment! Taking photos can IMPAIR your memory of events because you’re too distracted by getting the right shot, study reveals

  • Scientists in the US tested people’s memory recall after taking photos of artwork
  • Overall, taking photos impaired recall of the artwork’s details, the experts found  
  • People were better at recalling their details when they hadn’t been taking snaps
  • The study suggests we should live in the moment when visiting art or landmarks 

Many of us are guilty of whipping out our smartphone to capture a memorable moment, like visiting a famous historical monument or a stunning piece of art.

But scientists say photos can actually impair our memory of events, by making us focus on the act of picture-taking rather the moment itself.

In experiments, the researchers in New York found participants were better at recalling details of artwork when they hadn’t been taking snaps of them. 

Many people take photos as a way of preserving important moments in their life, but the study suggests this doesn’t actually work. 

Live in the moment: Taking photos can actually impair your memory, according to the study by two experts at Binghamton University. Pictured, a smartphone user takes a photo of the remains of the Berlin Wall


Concert goers often find their view blocked by the person in front of them who is trying to capture the perfect ‘Instagram moment’ with their phone.  

But experts say filming a live event, posting photos and video on platforms like Instagram and providing a running commentary on Twitter can actually improve the experience. 

US researchers examined the effect of generating content on people’s feelings of immersion during different events, such as the Super Bowl halftime show. 

They found this common behaviour can actually improve experiences by increasing engagement and making feel like time is ‘flying’. 

Read more: Tweeting and posting photos at concerts ‘can improve the experience’


‘Does taking a photograph of an item improve or impair memory? The literature is currently mixed, with some studies showing impairments and other studies showing improvements,’ the researchers say in their paper.

‘It is possible that simply completing two tasks at once (viewing and photographing) leads to the impairment in memory for photographed items.’      

The researchers conducted a series of experiments involving 525 participants, who were shown various pieces of artwork, including paintings, sketches and photographs.

They were asked to photograph some of the pieces of art using a camera phone, while just observing others. 

Participants were then informed they were to complete a memory test for the artwork they had viewed. 

The artwork used in the study tested two types of object categorisation by the human brain – ‘perceptual’ and ‘conceptual’.

As the names suggest, perceptual refers to particular details that we perceive and computes the similarity of one object to another.

Conceptual, meanwhile, is based on ideas and concepts – and allows us to remember objects based on what they do. 

For the perceptual memory test, participants had to identify what they’d seen among two other ‘foils’ – visually similar images. 

The slightly easier conceptual test involved recognising a concept that had been previously studied, also placed alongside two other foils. 

Examples of a perceptual test (top) and conceptual test item (bottom). ‘Studied item’ refers to the artwork originally shown to the participants – which they then had to identify correctly later on (the correct choice is circled)

‘Foils were selected to be perceptually and conceptually similar to targets and were comprised of two additional pieces from the same artist or two pieces by a different artist that depicted the same object,’ the researchers say. 

Over five experiments, the team found that photographed art was remembered more poorly than art that was just viewed, after both a short (20 minutes) and long (48 hours) delay between viewing and recall.

Participants experienced memory impairment both on perceptually driven and conceptually driven tests, the experts found. 

They say it is it ‘seldom the case’ that we take photos to remember experiences that occurred just minutes before. 

Instead, we do so to be able to revisit experiences further in the future, like years later when we’re scrolling through our camera roll.

A crowd of people in front of ‘The Starry Night’ by Vincent van Gogh – housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City

Doing so triggers a memory in our unconscious mind and gives us a pleasant burst of nostalgia – but it can take something away from the original moment, the study suggests.  

‘It is possible that participants may be relying on the camera to remember the photographed information for them, resulting in impaired memory for photographed information,’ said the study’s lead author, Rebecca Lurie at Binghamton University.

One limitation of the study is that it focused on art – but this in itself can have implications for visiting world-renowned artworks in museums. 

For example, The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, housed at Museum of Modern Art in New York City, is usually surrounded by people with their smartphones out.  

But soaking up the intricate details of such a masterpiece with our own eyes is arguably more rewarding and creates longer-lasting memories. 

The study has been published in Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition. 

Using our smartphones to constantly take photos is making us LOSE our memories because we’re too distracted by getting the right shot 

Taking photos on our smartphones is causing us to lose our most precious memories, scientists said in 2018.

We’re often so distracted by taking pictures that we can’t remember what we saw, forgetting the very thing we wanted to capture.

Using a smartphone takes us away from the moment, shifts our memory and ultimately changes the way we recall what has happened in our own lives, researchers say.

Using smartphones more generally has become a ‘giant source of distraction’ and sharing pictures on social media makes taking them less fun, researchers warn.   

In an in-depth feature on the psychology of smartphone photography in Vox, Brian Resnick looks at how attention is key to forming a lasting memory.

When we create memories, neurons in our brains link together the sensations that create memories – for example what something looked like, or what it felt like.

However, if we’re distracted by taking photos, this information will never be stored and these sensations are not registered.

In a study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, researchers took a few hundred participants on a self-guided tour of a church.

On the tour people were encouraged to take notes of what say saw – such as the shape of the building and what the adornments looked like.

One group had iPods with cameras and took pictures as they went, and the other group did not have cameras on them.

A week later, a quiz revealed those without cameras could correctly answer 7 out of 10 questions about what they saw.

For those who had cameras they got closer to 6 – a small but significant different, researchers say, and a sign the camera was a distraction.

Researchers, led by Emma Templeton, a Dartmouth College psychological researcher, wrote in the study that ‘participants without media consistently remembered their experience more precisely than participants who used media.’

‘Together, these findings suggest that using media may prevent people from remembering the very events they are attempting to preserve’.   

Researchers believe that the camera is distracting people from the experience which makes people unable to remember it as clearly.

She said that using smartphones has become a ‘giant source of distraction’ in our daily lives.

Researchers suspect that using media during any event could lead to us to forget it much more easily.

Other researchers have found posting pictures on social media changes how we remember memories and makes us more likely to remember something from a third-person perspective.  

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