You probably have at least one camera nearby right now. Smartphones have ensured that almost anybody can snap a picture at any time, preserving the moment better than our squishy, error-prone brains ever could. As we rely less on our memory abilities and more on cameras, does our natural ability to remember suffer?
A recent study has some answers. In various lab and field tests, participants were either allowed to take photos normally, or prevented from taking photos by surrendering their phones. Was memory affected by the ability to take pictures? As usual, it’s complicated.
People who took pictures had better memories for visual items. For example, while exploring a museum, they could identify the objects they encountered better than people without cameras. These people didn’t review the photos, so their better memory wasn’t due to having more chances to commit the environment to memory. Furthermore, taking pictures boosted all visual memories, not only the specific items that were photographed. Rather than being a distraction or a crutch, cameras appear to have provided an overall boost to visual memories.
The catch? Visual memories went up, but auditory memories went down. For example, participants remembered fewer facts from a museum’s audio guide when they took pictures of the exhibits. Interestingly, even taking a “mental photo”—that is, just pretending to have a camera—also boosted visual memories, but had the same downside of reducing auditory memories.
This last result shows that memory is closely related to attention. You remember what you pay attention to, and if you have a camera that you plan to use, you’re paying attention to what everything looks like. But attention is limited, so if you’re focusing on what you see, not focusing on what you hear.
Having a camera at all times could be good for memory, then, as long as it’s the visuals you want to remember and not the audio.
The state of your brain also makes a difference—a sharper brain will better be able to focus attention where it’s needed, and turn short-term perceptions into lasting memories.