Are Digital Pictures Messing With Our Memories? A Ph.D. Explains

Why the digital photo revolution may be messing with our memories

Our phones are filled with photos. A lot of photos. Most of us have thousands or tens of thousands of them stored on our devices and in the cloud. By the time we retire, we may have millions.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when you had to print your pictures and put them in photo albums or hang them on the wall. Editing them was difficult if not impossible. You certainly couldn’t just click a button.

But this isn’t just a case of new technology making things more convenient or more fun. It is. But the digital photo revolution is also changing how people look back on their memories and what they can and cannot remember.

LX News Producer and Editor Mackenzie Behm sat down with memory researcher Linda Henkel, Ph.D., a professor in the department of psychology at Fairfield University, to talk about how digital photos impact how we will remember our lives.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

MACKENZIE BEHM: How did you get started in your research on photos?

Linda Henkel, Ph.D.: I've always been interested in photography. My father was a photographer, so I grew up with photo albums, pictures all over the place. I specialize in research on false memories, and I got very interested in the idea. I know from other research when people do doctored photos that it can lead them to develop false beliefs and false memories. But I got curious what happens with our own photos, like the pictures that we take.

MACKENZIE BEHM: How does taking photos affect our memory?

Linda Henkel, Ph.D.: I had students from the university go to our lovely Bellarmine Museum to come on a guided tour. We told them specifically, “OK, now I want you to look at this.” And at the end, after the 20, 30 seconds, sometimes I would say, “Take a picture of it.” And other times I would say, “No, just keep looking for a few more seconds, and let's move on.” So, once they took that photo, it's as if, “OK got it. Let's move on.” And in that case, if they took photos, the ones that they took photos of the objects of art, they didn't remember as many visual details several days later. What was on the statue's head? What was in the sky in the painting over there? And so it impaired their memory, the act of taking photos of their memory, in part because they're expecting the camera to remember for them.

The idea with the photo taking impairment effect, it's the idea that if you take a photo of something rather than just look at it, if you are expecting the camera to remember for you, you're going to cognitively offload that.

And from a cognitive perspective, this actually isn't a terrible idea. If I know that the camera has it, I'm now ready for something else. I freed up my cognitive resources to pay attention to the next thing.

MACKENZIE BEHM: What does the amount of photos we take now mean for us when we are older?

Linda Henkel, Ph.D.: We're 80 years old now. And what are we going to do? Spend 10 years re-watching the first 10 years of our lives and now we're 90? I experienced nothing other than reliving those experiences. It's too much because you just don't have the time for it. That said, it's useful. What I would give to have some video of my parents when I was a baby. Do I need to re-watch every minute I ever lived through? Probably not.

MACKENZIE BEHM: How does editing our photos affect our memory?

Linda Henkel, Ph.D.: I was playing with a Snapchat with the grandkids, you know, putting little horns on us, bunny ears and stuff. You know, this stuff is very comical. Those things, they're unrealistic. So, when I look back at the photos, I'm not going to be like, oh, right, I remember the time we melted our faces and peeled them apart. I know it's a doctored photo, but what about those subtle things like when I apply a filter to make myself look a little bit better or I crop something out of the photo? “I don't like this friend anymore. I'm just going to chop them out of the photo.” Will I remember them being at the events? 

And the research that I've been doing over the past two years is suggesting that editing our photos and then reviewing those edited photos is shaping our memories. We don't remember well what we get cropped out of the photos, and so we don't remember what those objects were. Now sometimes we're cropping photos just to get rid of the clutter. Like, I didn't want that fire hydrant in the photo. It's not important that it's there, but sometimes it's a meaningful piece of information that I willingly edited. And I am in essence, editing my memories as I'm editing my photos to some degree.

MACKENZIE BEHM: What do you want people to know about taking photos and memory?

Linda Henkel, Ph.D.: As a memory researcher, I think getting across the idea that taking lots of photos isn't inherently bad. Taking photos can be really valuable for memory, but we have to do it in a way that makes it so [we’re] taking photos that are going to serve as good retrieval cues, reminiscing about those photos by looking at them again.