Is our addiction to capturing a moment on our phones destroying our ability to remember the details of our own lives? Well, the last month already seems misty…
There have been some sunsets recently so pink and tortured that they insisted on being documented. I looked through the car windscreen to see drivers holding their phones out of the window as they steered, snapping and snapping photos with their thumbs, horns blaring as they swerved across the dual carriageway. The morning mists, similarly, fogged up Instagram with their Pantone variations on grey. We all tried to hold on to the second by trapping it in our phones. Except, no. There's a new study in the journal Psychological Science that asks: "To what extent does capturing one's life's events with a camera shape what one subsequently remembers?" Does it focus our attention, and hold it there, still? Or does it mean we pay less attention to the scene, the sunset, because we're recording it on camera, rather than in our minds? Are we using our memory card as a replacement for a memory?
The researcher Dr Linda Henkel sent groups of students around a museum, asking them to photograph some of the exhibits and simply look at the rest. The next day, in a series of tests, the students remembered more of the objects they'd looked at and fewer of those they'd photographed. Taking pictures makes us forget. "The act of photographing the object appears to enable people to dismiss the object from memory," Henkel found, "thereby relying on the external device of the camera to 'remember' for them." It's the "photo-taking-impairment effect". And it's changing how we write our histories. There have never been more photos taken or more photos shared. "When I think about what Instagram is, I think about moments," said Kevin Systrom, its founder, last Thursday. "We're forever on a quest to take a moment and record it forever in time."
There is a pressure now to document, share and remember everything. Our photos become nostalgic even as we take them. It tints our experience, in this weather misting our glasses when we enter a room. We are heavy with memory, and today it feels like there's a bit too much December. Because nostalgia in the season of nostalgia, in the season of "best of" lists and obituaries, when we are encouraged to pile memory upon memory in a Jenga tower of anecdotes, the emotion can feel overwhelming. So this is no time for big deaths, like Mandela's. No time for the kind of deaths that happen on Twitter and in special Sunday supplements. Sorry, mate, bad timing, we're too porous. Too memoried.
But what's the point of a photo, if not to remember? What does it do? And who actually remembers in still images rather than smells, or feelings, or lights?
My memory is a shallow grave of dead things, no sense of time, no dates, no facts. Luckily my boyfriend can still remember the dress I was wearing when we met. The name of the paint on our living-room walls. What we were meant to get from Ikea.
I use memory in a different way from him, which reminds me how many ways of remembering there are. When he sees a photo, it bolsters the things he already knows. When I see a photo, it feels like a surprise. For the already forgetful, a photo can be transformative. A journey to a place that has long been lost in a mind like a draining bath.
We won't remember the objects in a museum, no; we won't remember visiting the city in which the museum sits, the short-haul flight, the pizza eaten in faint drizzle; we won't remember the bed and breakfast with its burning radiators. And a photo of a sunset is better than no memory of a sunset at all.
Later, we remember the photos, not the sunsets, or sometimes neither. These short wet days. These spaces that scream for us to fill them with opinions and observations, each one sealing our memory of the moment in Ziploc bags to dispose of, ethically, at home. I know I will look back at Instagram photos of December's mists and sunsets, and remember Henkel's study telling us that photos make us forget.
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image: © Phalinn Ooi