If you want to remember your trip to the museum more vividly, make sure you leave the camera at home. That is the somewhat counterintuitive conclusion of a new study from Fairfield University, where researchers have examined the so-called “photo-taking impairment effect” — a curious psychological phenomenon whereby an attempt to preserve a memory impairs memory formation itself. The findings provide additional evidence that technology alters our interaction with the world around us.

The new study, which is published in the journal Psychological Science, shows that snapshots taken with a digital camera or a smartphone may cause the photographer to form a more tenuous memory of the object in question compared to someone who simply observes. "People so often whip out their cameras almost mindlessly to capture a moment, to the point that they are missing what is happening right in front of them," lead author Linda Henkel said in a press release. "When people rely on technology to remember for them — counting on the camera to record the event and thus not needing to attend to it fully themselves — it can have a negative impact on how well they remember their experiences.”

To investigate, researchers enrolled a number of college students in an experiment at the university’s Bellarmine Museum of Art. Participants were asked to take special note of a particular set of objects using either photography or sheer observation. The following day, each participants were asked to describe the objects.

Henkel found that the average participant provided significantly less accurate images of the objects they had photographed compared to those they had observed. “Results showed a photo-taking-impairment effect,” she explained. “If participants took a photo of each object as a whole, they remembered fewer objects and remembered fewer details about the objects and the objects’ locations in the museum than if they instead only observed the objects and did not photograph them.”

Snapshots, it would seem, impair memory formation by forcing the photographer to refract her experience of the target object through a secondary act. In other words, her brain must entertain both the object and the simultaneous act of photographing it. Although the current study is limited to a museum setting, Henkel is confident that the phenomenon applies in virtually all contexts.

"This study was carefully controlled, so participants were directed to take pictures of particular objects and not others," she told reporters. "But in everyday life people take photos of things that are important to them, that are meaningful, that they want to remember."

So, before you take out your camera, ask yourself if there’s a better way to preserve the moment.   

Source: Henkel LA. Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour. Psychological Science. 2013.