Every once in a while a Hollywood celebrity says something that is actually thought provoking. In a recent NPR interview George Clooney lamented “people are experiencing less and recording more… The trick is to get them not to do it when you go to the bathroom.” Bathroom humor aside, he has a point: when every observer has a camera it doesn’t just mean too much recording; it means we’ve lost our ability to experience things directly.
Technology is an enabling and ever-evolving wonder, but there may be certain aspects of technology that contribute to the de-evolution of our most basic human attributes.
A recent article in the journal Psychological Science is titled Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour. From the study’s abstract: “Two studies by Fairfield University’s Professor of Psychology Linda A. Henkel examined whether photographing objects impacts what is remembered about them. Participants were led on a guided tour of an art museum and were directed to observe some objects and to photograph others. Results showed a photo-taking-impairment effect: If participants took a photo of each object as a whole, they remembered fewer objects than if they instead only observed the objects and did not photograph them. This finding highlights key differences between people’s memory and the camera’s ‘memory’ and suggests that the additional attentional and cognitive processes engaged by more focused activity can eliminate the photo-taking-impairment effect.”
George Clooney and Professor Henkel arrive at roughly the same conclusion. Clooney observed that people no longer reach out to touch a celebrity or shake hands; their hands are busy pointing cell phones at the object of their attention. Does that same person feel that he or she actually experienced meeting George Clooney, even though they were several feet away? Henkel’s study concludes that taking a picture of an experience serves as a cue that you don’t have to bother actually remembering. Her hypothesis is that we need not bother remembering something, that taking a photo can serve as a “direction to forget.” Instead of retrieving the information from “natural” memory, we can simply look at the pictures later (assuming we remember we took the picture). One could argue that this frees up memory “space” for more important things – remembering to record a favorite TV show, for example.
This is not an indictment of photo-taking. Visual triggers stimulate emotions, and emotions are a deeply seated human dynamic. As Proust observed in Remembrance of Things Past, memory is not a neat linear process; it’s a messy process involving random stimulations from a wide array of triggers. But maybe it’s a good idea to pare down our Instagram library so we free up some memory.
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