Recently I transferred a stash of photos from my iPad to my computer. As the hundred-some photos flashed by on the screen, I found myself reliving the full panoply of emotions from memories long forgotten. Such is the power of photographs — which is why my friends and I are fans of the saying that if something wasn’t captured by camera, it’s like it never happened.
To a certain extent, that may be true, and not just because old photos make it easier for us to reminisce about times gone by. In fact, recent research suggests that the act of photographing something helps us remember the visual aspects of the moment better, even if we never look at the photo again.
In a study published in June in the journal Psychological Science, researchers recruited 294 participants to tour a museum exhibit of Etruscan artifacts while listening to an audio guide. Half of the participants were given cameras and told to take at least ten photos. At the end of the tour, all participants asked to answer a series of multiple-choice questions about the objects they had seen. Those who took photos, the researchers found, recognized almost 7 percent more objects than those who didn’t.
That doesn’t mean that taking photos is always the best way to remember a moment, though. These findings contribute to a larger debate about whether or not taking photographs enhances our experiences or distracts us from them. In 2014, Linda Henkel, a psychologist at Fairfield University, published a similar study in Psychological Science, asking 27 participants to visit a museum and take photos of half of the objects. In contrast to the more recent research, Henkel found that participants who did not photograph the objects were more likely to remember them.
Drawing parallels to a cluster of experiments conducted in the 1960s, in which researchers theorized that we intentionally forget information once we believe we no longer need to store it, Henkel suggested that taking a photo of something actually served as a trigger for people to forget it. Once people realized they could rely on the photograph rather than their brains, she reasoned, they no longer needed to mentally save the information for later.
This argument aligns with a phenomenon psychologists call “cognitive offloading,” in which our brains ease the amount of work they have to do by using an outside aid. When you’re looking at an upside-down object, for example, you might tilt your head to be able to see it right-side-up, or you might write your grocery list on a Post-it note so that you don’t have to remember the exact type of tomato you need. Researchers have argued that computers and phones are encouraging us to offload many of our cognitive functions onto other things, reducing our need to think, process, and remember.
But that doesn’t appear to be what’s happening when people take photographs, says Kristin Diehl, a consumer psychologist at the University of Southern California and one of the authors of the June research. In another one of the study’s experiments, Diehl and her colleagues tested the cognitive offloading hypothesis by dividing participants into three groups: people who took photographs while walking through a virtual museum exhibit and were told their pictures would be saved, people who took photographs and were told their pictures would be deleted, and people who did not take photographs. According to the “offloading” theory, participants who believed their photos would be saved would remember less because they would “offload” the information, knowing that they could refer back to their photos.
That’s not what happened, though. When the researchers analyzed the results, they found no statistically significant difference between the two groups of photo takers. Diehl thinks that the outcome might have something to do with the motivation for taking photos: While we might write down information on a piece of paper to get it out of our brains, we photograph people, experiences, and objects for the opposite purpose – because we want to capture a moment that is meaningful to us. This particular motivation may encourage us to look more carefully at the visual details of the moment we’re in, and thus remember it better later on.
Past research seems to back this up. In a separate study of Diehl’s published last year in the journal Attitudes and Social Cognition, the same group of researchers used an eye-tracking system on 51 visitors to an archaeology museum; participants who were asked to take photos of the exhibit spent more time looking at the artifacts, and looked at them more often. In their most recent study, the team found that participants who imagined taking photos recalled visual information just as well as participants who took actual photographs. Even Henkel’s 2014 study, in which participants were more likely to remember museum objects if they didn’t photograph them, found that a subset of photo takers — participants who zoomed in and photographed details, as opposed to just capturing the objects more generally — actually remembered just as much as the people who didn’t take pictures at all.
But this increase in visual memory comes at a cost. Diehl and her colleagues found in their most recent study that even though people who took photos remembered visual information better, they were more likely to forget the information they learned in their audio guide when quizzed about it later. In other words, retaining more of what you see may mean you retain less of what you hear: “Since our attention is limited, whatever you devote to visual you can’t devote to other senses,” Diehl explains.
It’s not as great a trade-off as it seems. While we generally tend to place more value on our sense of sight than our sense of hearing, studies have shown that auditory processing is important for cognition — especially when it comes to learning and remembering the order and timing of information. For example, in one 1991 study, some participants listened to a particular rhythm, while others viewed a visual representation of it. When they were later asked to reproduce the same rhythm, those who had listened to it were much more likely to tap the rhythm accurately that those who had seen it.
Similarly, researchers have found that hearing is the more important sense when it comes to learning sequences and patterns. In one 1995 study, researchers split their subjects into three groups and taught each one a pattern, through sound (a series of computer-generated beeps), through sight (a series of flashing black boxes), or through touch (a series of vibrations). Each group was then presented a slew of random sequences and asked whether each one followed the same rules as the pattern they had just learned. Again, the participants who learned the pattern through sound were much more likely to answer correctly than participants who learned through sight or touch.
Indeed, our sense of sound may have profound implications for the way we think about our world. Studies of people who are seriously hearing impaired have found that while they have a much stronger visual-spatial sense, they have difficulty organizing information sequentially. Helen Keller, who was famously both deaf and blind, said on multiple occasions that her lack of hearing presented the greater challenge: “Though an inability to see separated her from experience with objects, the inability to hear separated her from experience with people,” cognition researcher Carryl Baldwin wrote in her book Auditory Cognition and Human Performance.
We’ve become an increasingly visual world: By one estimate, around 1.3 trillion photos are now taken each year, a rise fueled by smartphones and social media. Without getting into the debate about whether either of those things has influenced our lives for better or worse, it is fair to say that all the images we take and post provide a sort of window to the past; our ability to capture experiences visually and pay attention to visual details has allowed us to literally “look back” at experiences we’ve had. But as vividly visual as our lives have become, perhaps we’re losing out on some of the things that are happening right in front of our ears.