As professionals in the learning field, memory is central to our work. If we don’t help our learners preserve their memories (of what they learned), we have not really done our job. I’m oversimplifying here — sometimes we want to guide our learners toward external memory aids instead of memory. But mostly, we aim to support learning and memory.

Glacier View

You might have learned that people who take photographs will remember less than those who did not take photographs. Several research studies showed this (see for example, Henkel, 2014).

The internet buzzed with this information a few years ago:

  • The Telegraph — http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/10507146/Taking-photographs-ruins-the-memory-research-finds.html
  • NPR — http://www.npr.org/2014/05/22/314592247/overexposed-camera-phones-could-be-washing-out-our-memories
  • Slate — http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2013/12/09/a_new_study_finds_taking_photos_hurts_memory_of_the_thing_you_were_trying.html
  • CNN — http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/10/health/memory-photos-psychology/index.html
  • Fox News — http://www.foxnews.com/health/2013/12/11/taking-pictures-may-impair-memories-study-shows.html

Well, that was then. This is now.

Research Wisdom

There are CRITICAL LESSONS to be learned here — about using science intelligently… with wisdom.

Science is a self-correcting system that, with the arc of time, bends toward the truth. So, at any point in time, when we ask science for its conclusions, it tells us what it knows, while it apologizes for not knowing everything. Scientists can be wrong. Science can take wrong turns on the long road toward better understanding.

Does this mean we should reject scientific conclusions because they can’t guarantee omniscience; they can’t guarantee truth? I’ve written about this in more depth elsewhere, but I’ll say it here briefly — recommendations from science are better than our own intuitions; especially in regards to learning, given all the ways we humans are blind to how learning works.

Memory With Photography

Earlier studies showed that people who photographed images were less able to remember them than people who simply examined the images. Researchers surmised that people who off-loaded their memories to an external memory aid — to the photographs — freed up memory for other things.

We can look back at this now and see that this was a time of innocence; that science had kept some confidences hidden. New research by Barasch, Diehl, Silverman, and Zauberman (2017), found that people “who could freely take photographs during an experience recognized more of what they saw” and that those “with a camera had better recognition of aspects of the scene that they photographed than of aspects they did not photograph.

Of course, this is just one set of studies… we must be patient with science. More research will be done, and you and will benefit in knowing more than we know now and with more confidence… but this will take time.

What is the difference between the earlier studies and this latest set of studies? As argued by Barasch, Diehl, Silverman, and Zauberman (2017), the older studies did not give people the choice of which objects to photograph. In the words of the researchers, people did not have volitional control of their photographing experience. They didn’t go through the normal process we might go through in our real-world situations, where we must decide what to photograph and determine how to photograph the objects we target (i.e., the angles, borders, focus, etc.).

In a series of four experiments, the new research showed that attention was at the center of the memory effect. Indeed, people taking photographs “recognized more of what they saw and less of what they heard, compared with those who could not take any photographs (I added the bold underlines).

Interestingly, some of the same researchers, just the year before had found that taking photographs actually improved people’s enjoyment of their experiences (Diehl, Zauberman, & Barasch, 2016).

Practical Considerations for Learning Professionals

You might be asking yourself, “How should I handle the research-based recommendations I encounter?” Here is my advice:

  1. Be skeptical, but not too skeptical.
  2. Determine whether the research comes from a trusted source. Best sources are top-tier refereed scientific journals — especially where many studies find the same results. Worst sources are survey-based compilations of opinions. Beware of recommendations based on one scientific article. Beware of vendor-sponsored research. Beware of research that is not refereed; that is, not vetted by other researchers.
  3. Find yourself a trusted research translator. These people — and I count myself among them — have spent enough substantial time exploring the practical aspects of the research that they are liable to have wisdom about what the research means — and what its boundary conditions might be.
  4. Pay your research translators — so they can continue doing their work.
  5. Be good and prosper. Use the research in your learning programs and test it. Do good evaluation so you can get valid feedback to make your learning initiatives maximally effective.

Inscribed in My High School Yearbook in 1976

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, A time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories; They’re all that’s left you

Written by Paul Simon

The Photograph Above

Taken in Glacier National Park, Montana, USA; July 1, 2017
And incidentally, the glaciers are shrinking permanently.

Research Cited

Barasch, A., Diehl, K., Silverman, J., & Zauberman, G. (2017). Photographic Memory: The Effects of Volitional Photo Taking on Memory for Visual and Auditory Aspects of an Experience. Psychological Science, early online publication.

Diehl, K., Zauberman, G., & Barasch, A. (2016). How taking photos increases enjoyment of experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 111, 119–140.

Henkel, L. A. (2014). Point-and-shoot memories: The influence of taking photos on memory for a museum tour. Psychological Science, 25, 396–402.