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A cautionary note about constant digital photography.

Our cities, neighborhoods, and favorite spaces have never been quite so widely photographed before. Anyone with a smart phone now has a camera. Anyone with Instagram is a faux-fine-art photographer. And any old subject – a puddle of water, a yellow school bus – suddenly demands we capture the moment.

It seems highly likely, though, that the ubiquity of digital photography – and the weird ways we now behave because of it – may be altering how we perceive the world around us. Technology is doing this in numerous ways. Why not through cell-phone cameras, too?

Or, as psychological scientist Linda Henkel asks in a new study in the journal Psychological Science: "To what extent does capturing one’s life events with a camera shape what one subsequently remembers?"

There are a couple of ways to think about the potential answer. Photography may focus our observation on the things around us. Or it may do the opposite, dividing our attention (in the same way that talking on the phone while driving does). It’s also possible that we actively opt not to pay much attention to the scenes we capture, because we’re counting on photos to record everything so we don't mentally have to. If that's the case, that would mean that you're farming out your memory to Instagram as you move through the world.

To test this, Henkel, a researcher at Fairfield University, concocted a series of experiments leading undergraduate students on guided tours through the university's Bellarmine Museum of Art. They looked at paintings, sculptures, pottery, jewelry and mosaics. The students were given digital cameras to photograph some of the objects and were told to simply observe the others. The next day, they were given a series of recall tests, trying to detect which objects they remembered best in name and detail.

As it turned out, people remembered fewer of the photographed objects, and fewer of the details about them, relative to the pieces of art they'd actively observed with their own eyes.

This suggests what Henkel calls a "photo-taking-impairment effect:"

Despite the added time or attention required to angle the camera and adjust the lens so as to capture the best shot of the object in its entirety, the act of photographing the object appears to enable people to dismiss the object from memory, thereby relying on the external devise of the camera to “remember” for them.

It seems plausible that you might do something very similar when you walk down the street snapping photos as when you tour a museum. Digital maps have enabled us to stop paying attention to the layout of the space around us. Perhaps digital cameras do the same with the details of all that scenery, whether we're on vacation in a new city, or simply traveling through our own.

There was one catch in Henkel's findings: She also asked participants to zoom in on and photograph the details of some of these art pieces. And people who did that were much better at remembering the works of art that those who simply wedged entire objects into one frame and then walked away. Perhaps, by focusing consciously on the details, we can cut back on some of this "photo-taking impairment effect."

None of this tells us much about what happens when people go back and actually look at the photos they've taken. Previous research suggests, for example, that the act of reviewing class notes is more helpful than the process of taking them in the first place. Concludes Henkel:

It may be that our photos can help us remember only if we actually access and interact with them, rather than just amass them.

Which raises the question: When was the last time you actually looked at your own Instagram feed? Or did you simply create it for the benefit of others?

Top image: AntonSokolov /Shutterstock.com

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