Can Taking Too Many Photos Wreak Havoc On Your Brain?

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I barricaded myself in my office this past weekend, hoping to face off against one of my demons. I fought off the usual distractions. No calls or email. No Facebook or Twitter. No YouTube, memes, or cat videos. I was a man on a mission and nothing was going to stop me. If this demon was to be truly be expelled from this dimension, it would take all of my concentration. After all, it’s not every day you admit to yourself that your internet favorites/bookmarks are glaringly and alarmingly out of control. I felt pretty good when I sat down and launched my browser. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, right? If you’re anything like I am, your favorites list is filled with links to articles and websites that grabbed your interest when you really didn’t have the time to fully explore them. With one well-intentioned click of the mouse I’d been adding mountains to my digital clutter on a daily basis. When I clicked on Firefox’s bookmarks icon, I was greeted by literally hundreds of entries– relatively few of which had actually been organized into folders.

It was shortly after diving in that I stumbled across an article that had apparently caught my eye a few months ago. The headline read, “Psychologists Say Taking Too Many Pictures Could Wreak Havoc On Your Brain.”

I’ll pause here for a moment while you laugh, gag, shout, spit, or just scratch your head. Let me know when you’re ready for me to continue.

At first I thought there was no way this was an accurate headline. It had to be some kind of sensational, contrived search engine optimization sleight of hand, luring me in with one set of expectations, then swapping them with another once I was hooked. The old bait and switch. Imagine my surprise, though, upon getting into the meat of it and discovering that the article– and the “study” upon which it was reporting– were in fact accurate renditions of that seemingly ridiculous headline.

I had to know more.

The Hypothesis

Unfortunately, even totally whacked out theories like this one get to use scientific jargon and buzzwords. That being said, the “hypothesis” boils down to this:  By relying on photography to document experiences, we are subconsciously using the camera to remember for us. As a result, our ability to remember these events on our own can and will suffer.

If you’re going to keep laughing like that I’m never going to be able to finish. Please– calm yourselves.

The Research

According to the article, psychologist Maryanne Garry of the Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) posits the theory that taking “too may photos” (a term she doesn’t quantify) somehow undermines the way people form memories. An abstract of the published research says, among other things, that photography can manipulate not only our memories, but also the subjective interpretations of lived experiences.

Huh?

“I think the problem is that people are giving away being in the moment,” Garry said in a recent interview with National Public Radio (NPR). She goes on to say that parents who take “tons” of photos have “got a thousand photos, and then they just dump the photos somewhere and don’t really look at them very much, because it’s too difficult to tag them and organize them.”

Wait. It gets better.

“If parents are giving away some of their role as the archivist of the child’s memory, then they’re giving away some of their role as one of the key people who help children learn how to talk about their experiences.”

And better still.

Apparently, some of the research also shows that blatantly “doctored” (read “Photoshopped”) photos can “cultivate false memories.”

Really.  I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

Why This is Ridiculous

For starters, who are we talking about? Surely there’s a difference between the professional and the enthusiast, right? Taking it a step further, we can also assert a major difference between the enthusiast with a DSLR and the person documenting every salad and sunset with an iPhone. So, without some insight into exactly whose minds are allegedly being turned to mush by photography, it’s hard to give this study any real credence. It also seems as if the researcher’s “findings” are based more on the fact that people don’t take the time to organize their photos than on the idea that they may be taking too many. Somewhere the scientific method is reading the results of this study and choking on its lunch.

Why This Might Have Some Merit

I wrote an article back in September entitled “Leaving the Camera at Home. You Can Do It…Really,” in which I talked about the importance of doing exactly what the title said– leaving the camera at home once in a while and actually living life, rather than just documenting it. We are constantly reading articles about the best advice for improving our photography. It seems that each and every one of those lists proclaims the need for taking your camera everywhere you go. While I totally get the ideas that the more you shoot the better you get, and you never know what you might miss by leaving the camera at home, I’d have to say that my relationships with the people important to me thrive in part because of my willingness to participate in their lives and not just document them. This is totally different from what the researchers in this study put forth as their reasons for putting the camera down once in a while, but you see my point.

How to Not Wreak Havoc On Your Brain

I have a feeling that the researchers and I have very different ideas of what it means to wreak havoc on one’s brain, but in the interest of science, I offer them these ten solutions to the scourge of taking too many photos that has gripped me in its digital choke hold. From now on, I promise to:

1.  Only take photos on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays.

2.  Between the hours of 5:00 – 7:00 p.m.

3.  Only take photos on even-numbered calendar dates.

4.  Only shoot left-handed.

5.  Only shoot Polaroids

6.  Only shoot from a seated position for the next 30 days.

7.  Only shoot facing north or south– never east or west.

8.  Only shoot for clients born in odd-numbered years.

9.  Never shoot cliches again (musician on railroad tracks, vintage couch in a meadow, famous landmarks, etc.).

10.  Always wait at least 30 minutes after eating before engaging in photographic activity.

Wrap-Up

The thing about research is that you can get it to say pretty much whatever you want it to say. Do I think that taking too many photos can wreak havoc on our brains? As interesting as it might sounds as a really bad horror movie, we all know that the basic premise is kind of ridiculous.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I still have favorites to clean up. Who knows what other gems I may find?

 

 

 

  • Ilva Beretta

    You laugh at it but I actually do agree with what is said on the whole (not the photoshop part though) and I’m pretty sure that the study is talking about people in general and not professional photographers at work. I work as a professional photographer and I realize that I take far less photos than non pro photographers do because I work so much behind the camera that I have chosen to leave it behind maybe 75% of my spare time. When I realized that I was looking at the world as an eternal object to be photographed and not looked at in that moment but put on hold to be looked at as a photo I felt that I was loosing the capacity to savour life in that moment and I didn’t concentrate on life really so I decided to leave the camera at home. What I do is to take camera walks or trips where my sole scope is to photograph and I have to say that I get much more out of doing it that way and that my life (and brain) feels better now when I’m not always looking through a mental viewfinder. Especially when I look around and see all these people taking photos of everything with cameras and phones and not really seeing the whole but only the parts.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Those are great points, Ilva. I agree that professionals take far fewer personal photos these days than everyone else. I do take issue, though, with the whole notion of false or failing memories. When it’s important you remember it….most of the time.

  • http://pireze.com/ IL

    Agreed with Ilva. I actually find myself taking less photos than my friends, even though I am a photographer. When I take up my camera it’s with a purpose in mind. I don’t bring it out with me on the street (since I’m not a street photographer) or to dinner, I don’t take 300 selfies over the course of a week. A lot of the time, I won’t even bring it out to concerts unless I am actually supposed to be documenting the gig.
    That’s not to say that I won’t indulge in some spontaneous photography — after all, that is part of what being a photographer is about. But I don’t believe in the sort of mindless documenting of life that many people seem caught up with in this day and age.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Excellent points. Thanks for joining the discussion.

  • http://www.tylertrahan.com/ Tyler

    +1 to Ilva’s point that pro photographers (the full-timers at least) probably take fewer photos of our lives than the average person. I still haven’t figured out how to take a selfie without my arm looking huge, and I can count my food photos on one hand.

    I have a photographic memory even when I don’t have actual photographs of my experiences. That said, I’m still waiting for that device I can plug into my brain that’ll make JPEGs out of my dreams and memories!

  • http://wingtangwong.com/ Wing Wong

    @jeff, I’m wondering if your response to the research is tongue in cheek or just an attempt to lighten the mood. :/

    Doctored photos, videos, retelling of stories, etc… they all can change one’s perception of the event/memory. That isn’t in debate. The neuroscientists know it and the politicians know it. Any folks responsible for crafting such nuanced or ham fisted changes are good at it.

    And yes, if you spend a significant portion of your time honing one particle skill or craft… it will change the way you think. It’s a natural rewiring response of your brain to adapt to the demands you or the environment put on it. This happens with muscles as well.

    Similarly, if you are photographing an event, you aren’t part of the event. When I’m shooting at a party, during a hike, or anytime I’m creating with the camera… I’m thinking along different lines of thought. I’m taking different things into account. In a sense, while I am trying to capture the emotions and feelings of the moment, I may not necessarily be feeling them. I realized this a few years ago and have made a conscious effort to not take my camera to parties or other social events where I want to be present in the moment.

    As for reliance on the camera for one’s memories, there is a basis for that as well. One might trivialize the moment if they think, “I’ll take a photo of this now, and digest it later”. There is a DVR’ing of the moment, in a sense, and when we go to check out the DVR’d moment, the emotions we felt don’t necessarily jive with the recorded moment with the camera. There is, in a sense, a disconnect.

    But our brains continue to try to make sense of this. And in a way, it changes how we think and perceive.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Hi, Wing. For the most part it’s a tongue-in-cheek response…and an attempt to lighten the mood. I have no doubt that visuals have an impact on our memories. Perfect example– how many “memories” do you have from your childhood strictly because you’ve seen a photo of it? I get that a photo can– over time– take the place of a memory. My issue with the research in this case is that it basically contradicts itself (in my opinion), insofar as the stated problem has less to do with the number of photos taken and more to do with what people do or don’t do with them afterwards.

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

  • Kay O. Sweaver

    There is some interesting research about the relationship between photography and memory: http://www.theguardian.com/news/reality-check/2013/dec/10/does-taking-photographs-ruin-your-memory

    As a photographer I have no doubt that my brain has been rewired to see light differently than the average Joe, and as Wing Wong mentions there is a difference of experience shooting an event rather than just attending an event sans camera.

    Cameras are effectively time machines. When you bring that eyepiece up to your face you’re no longer present in the here and now, but you’re splitting yourself between the here and now and some future moment where you’re editing, or posting photos online, or making prints. You’re partially in the future, just like when you look at a photo you’re partially in the past.

    Its disruptive technology in the sense that it disrupts and changes the way we see and remember the world. I feel like we can’t just dismiss these ideas as ridiculous.

  • Amaryllis

    I kind of have to agree with part of the thing here, in the fact that when documenting something, you don’t actually ‘live’ the moment. This said, ever since I started doing real photography and not just snapshots, I haven’t taken as many photos as before simply because I don’t shoot everything I see. I have only taken food photos once and it was because we were eating sushi, and all of those colors were pretty. As for selfies (I prefer calling them selcas, though), I used to take them before I actually engaged into becoming a photographer. I’m still an amateur wanting to go pro at some point, but I have stopped the casual snapshooter’s habits a long time ago. Ever since then, I do take my camera with me at all times (though, most of the time it’s just my little S110, not my DSLR), but I don’t have it out at all times. And during unique moments (you know, Walt Disney World’s fireworks, for example), I forget I have a camera. I wouldn’t want shots of something like that anyway. They wouldn’t be as pretty as the memories.

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Awesome points, Amaryllis. Thanks!

  • Ahmet

    I don’t think it’s about the actual average photo per day. It’s about taking a photo instead of memorizing the moment. It’s like writing down a phone number. If you write it on a piece of paper, I’m pretty sure you won’t remember it in 5 seconds. With photos it’s the same. Unconsciously your brain files the moment under “whatever I’ve got a photo of it”. Later on you will have the photo, but not the attached sounds, smells, emotions.
    Fake memories? Hold on, they do exist and can be quite steep! If your environment and even photos tell you something, you will believe it. If everybody in the world says something you WILL believe it whether you want it or not. (Very few exceptions, like Darwin)

    • Jeffrey Guyer

      Hi, Ahmet– Sorry, but I gotta disagree on your first point. I am much more likely to remember a phone number if I actually take the time to write it down. As for the rest, I see what you’re saying. I just don’t think it’s nearly as pervasive as these researchers would have us believe.

      Thanks for commenting.

  • https://www.facebook.com/ad.destecroix Ad De Ste Croix

    No :D

  • Publius

    This reminds me of people in antiquity who argued against writing, because it would ruin people’s memory. Of course, the only reason we know that is because someone wrote it down…