If You Don’t Document It, It Still Happened – And You’ll Probably Remember It Better

146634794Obsessively documenting every single thing we do with our stupid iPhones is ruining our lives and stealing our memories. Okay, I’m exaggerating. A little.

A new psychological study by Linda Henkel of Fairfield University has provided some proof there is an effect to all of these photos we’re constantly snapping. There’s something called a “photo-taking impairment effect”: when we take a photo of something we don’t remember it as well.

“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,” explains Henkel.

Yes! That. I’d also like to add, as per my first set of comments – that obsessively documenting events ruins them. Been to a concert lately? How about a wedding? I’m a photographer and have worked many a wedding. Do you know what is ruining wedding photos? People taking terrible fucking pictures on their phones. They are in every important shot. What about concerts? How many times have you seen a concert photo taken with a phone, where you can actually decipher who is performing? Phone concert photos are crap. Stop it, people. Just stop it.

To test her hypothesis Henkel set up an experiment in the Bellarmine Museum of Art at Fairfield University, leading students on a tour of the museum and asking students to take note of certain objects by photographing them or simply looking at them.

The next day the students’ memory of the tour was tested, with the results showing that the subjects were less able to recognize the objects they had photographed compared to those they had only looked at.

I’m a mother of two; I understand the desire to capture moments. But guess what – if you don’t catch them on film, they still happened. I know that sounds crazy – but they did. I wasn’t able to document my son’s first step – I was too busy celebrating with him. I can choose one of the plethora of pictures I took of him when he was around a year old and pretend that was the one. That’s good enough for me.

The biggest problem? The sheer volume of the photos we’re taking. We’re taking so many it’s almost impossible to organize and interact with them all:

“Research has suggested that the sheer volume and lack of organization of digital photos for personal memories discourages many people from accessing and reminiscing about them,” says Henkel. “In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos, rather than just amass them.”

I can attest to this one; I’ve yet to make a baby book yet. I wonder if this is something that would have been done already had my photos not been digital and numbering in the thousands.

“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,” said Henkel.

(photo: Getty Images)

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    • Justme

      One hashtag that I see constantly on my Instagram feed is #momarazzi. I hate this phrase because I hate everything associated with the idea of not only capturing every moment of our children’s lives but then capitalizing on it by displaying it on every social media site available. The paparazzi are not good people – they are profiting off the lives of others (who, in then, do profit off the publicity…but I suppose that is another story). Why would I want to imitate that with my children?

      • http://twitter.com/mariaguido Maria Guido

        Yuck – I’ve never heard that. That’s terrible.

      • pixie

        I hope I never, ever see that hashtag.

      • Justme

        You are obviously not friends with the *right* people. ;)

      • http://fairlyoddmedia.com/ Frances Locke

        Whelp, for shits and not-so-many giggles, I threw that little hashtag into the Twitter search bar, and I almost became sucked into the hate-read K-hole, but somehow did not. I commend you for knowing that these people exist and not shipping off to a deserted island to retire from society.

      • Justme

        Not to sound all braggy but…I grew up in an upper middle class neighborhood, went to college and joined a sorority, and now live in an upper middle class area. So a lot of the women that I am friends with (at least in the digital sense) are white, wealthy, stay-at-home-mothers. I think, in my experience, it’s a very specific group of moms that are using this expression to document every aspect of their child’s life. I see it on their mommy-blogs a lot, too.

        I mean, it is annoying to see in my IG feed and I think it is absolutely ridiculous…but I also have to remember that everyone is a different kind of mother and that’s okay. I sit here and snark behind a screen name while they post dozens upon dozens of pictures of their snowflake. Who is to say which is the better way to be a mother, you know what I mean?

      • http://fairlyoddmedia.com/ Frances Locke

        I actually think you’re pretty awesome for looking at it this way. I love to snark it up, and I am unabashed about it, but seriously, it really doesn’t bother me. Not in the way people who post over-sharing, potentially embarrassing statuses or photos of their kids do. A woman I used to work with once posted a long winded FB status about her daughter’s first period. I was mortified for the kid.

        100+ pics of the same non-embarrassing stuff might get an eye roll out of me, but in the big picture, it’s just a quirk that I happen to think is silly. I certainly don’t think I”m better than a parent because I post less pictures. Just as I don’t want to be judged for not wanting to put pics of my kids out there as much, I trust a parents judgment in what they post.

        One of my close friends is a chronic share-a-holic. Sometimes I think it’s a little over the top, but in the end she’s a great person, and a great mom, and we just have different styles.

    • http://www.twitter.com/ilikeswears Dusty

      I think Louis CK did a bit about something like this… parents viewing all of their kids’ achievements through the viewfinder even as they’re happening right in front of their eyes.

    • Janok Place

      This makes me think of phone numbers… My daughter dunked my iPhone in coffee months ago, I never replaced it. Now I actually know people’s numbers off the top of my head. When I’ve spoken to some teenagers, they actually need to look at their own phone to tell you what their own number is…. ugh.

      • pixie

        I used to be able to spout off everyone’s phone number. Now that I’ve had a cellphone since I was 16, I can only remember a few. My number I can remember, same with my parents’ house number and their work/cell numbers, but for the life of me I can’t seem to remember the number for the landline that I just got in September.

      • SusannahJoy

        My husbands number has a 2 and a 9 in it.. and a 6. Or is that his social? Hmm. And yeah, I have totally had to check my phone for my own number, and I’ve had it for almost 2 years. *hangs head in shame* I’m always too busy enjoying what’s around me to take pictures though.

      • FaintlyXMacabre

        I don’t know my husband’s social. Which makes it kind of awkward when I’m setting annual appointments and stuff. I always get the “look” from the receptionist. Don’t judge me, aight?

      • Rachel Sea

        My wife thinks I’m a wizard because I actually know her mobile number.

      • http://fairlyoddmedia.com/ Frances Locke

        Yeah, it took me six months to learn mine because the iPhone is so damn easy. *hangs head in shame*

        *Edited to say that I DO know my nana’s number, because she’s had the same one since the 1980′s! I hope this counts for something! *

      • FaintlyXMacabre

        I only know my number and my husband’s, but for some reason I can also remember the phone number to the house we lived in when I was 6.

      • Janok Place

        I’ve probably got two dozen numbers memorized… mostly family and close friends. Heck, I could call the parents of friends I grew up with because I’ve had that locked down for 20 years. Could I tell you my husbands work number? No. It’s saved in the home phone.

    • EmmaFromÉire

      I have to ask my mother to leave her camera at home when we go to concerts or football matches. You can’t properly enjoy something if all you’re doing is taking photographs, and it distracts me as she’s waving her elbows in my ear trying to get a good shot.

    • Holly

      Personally, I like to snap a photo of the event I’m at (concert or pic w/friend at the concert) and then I put the phone away and enjoy it. That way I have my memory and something fun to post but I’m not spending the whole time looking at my phone.

    • Blueathena623

      So many feelings on this!
      2006 — first Xmas event at school where I work, am official videographer. Couple parents take photos with a camera, I think one parent asked me if I was video taping and then because I was he put his video camera away. One other parent stilled video taped it with a video camera.
      2012 — audience is a sea of iPhones. They know I am taping and the video will be available. I have a better camera and a better overall view, but I guess they want to zoom in on their kid. I have a picture somewhere that I secretly took to show how weird it looked to see the stage through all these phone screens.

      The sad thing is, my video camera was always on a tripod and was stationary. I’d glance at it occasionally, but mostly, I watched the performances (granted, I also worked the mics too). But the parents would only watch it through phone screens or view finders. I saw their kid better than they did.

    • Ashley

      Photography is a fun hobby for me, so I like to take photos at concerts…but just a few, then I put the camera down. Because I know from experience that it totally takes me out of the moment while I’m staring at the camera screen. I’m hoping to convince my fiance to have an unplugged wedding next year. Our photographer would love us if we did.

    • Véronique Houde

      OMG whenever we go somewhere, my boyfriend tends to take pictures of the most boring things. Like, we’re at the zoo, and he’s taking 20 pictures of a damn bird. I’ve started an intervention program where I actually tell him to put down the freaking camera and enjoy our time there, because really, is he ever going to look at those damn bird pictures and remember fond memories? NO.

      BUT I do really appreciate the little videos and pictures I took of my daughter during her first year of life. I didn’t do it obsessively enough to amass too many pictures, but enough to be able to make a good photo album of her first 6 months (the one year one should be done soon!) and am making a home video of all the videos right now. It’s awesome looking at them because it’s the little details of her so young that I forget – the wonky facial expressions, the little sounds she made… Awww… It’s all about balance – creating memories without becoming obsessed with the camera.

      • FormerlyKnownAsWendy

        Zoo pictures are the worst! I got on my husband’s case about it, because, seriously….what’s the point of taking a pic of the zebra in the zoo? If I want to know what one looks like, I google it! If you’re putting your kid in there, I guess it’s slightly less ridiculous…..but…. if I can google it (and probably get a better shot anyway), what’s the point?!

      • FaintlyXMacabre

        I have to disagree with you. Fireworks pictures are the worst. I would sincerely love to meet the person that actually looks at all of their fireworks pictures the day after.

      • FormerlyKnownAsWendy

        You may be right. I had not thought of them. I have never even tried to take them because they are just something to enjoy, not try to capture. That is awful!!!

      • Kay_Sue

        We actually accidentally caught a terrible picture this summer when the pier that was shooting off the Fourth of July fireworks we were watching exploded.

        It really, really made us reflect on the necessity to capture everything. Weird way to come to the conclusion to put our phones down, but it played a part.

        Also, the pictures themselves really are horrible.

      • leeannabelle

        Do you have any friends who post pictures of the moon on a monthly basis when it’s at its fullest? I don’t mean professional-quality telescope lens pictures, but crappy cell phone pictures. These have to be the worst. It’s a white blurry blob on a black background, and for some reason the poster is exclaiming “Isn’t this so beautiful???”

        I have at least 5 of these friends. :(

      • FaintlyXMacabre

        That is exactly 5 too many friends who do that.

    • http://fairlyoddmedia.com/ Frances Locke

      I’ve had people in my husband’s family complain that I don’t document things enough (and not-so-subtly insinuate I must not be an engage mom because of it) and it drives me up the wall. I want to be in the moment, and I can’t with an iPhone or a camcorder glued to my face.

      • FaintlyXMacabre

        I get this all. the. time. It’s not that I have anything against people who take pictures, per se, it’s just that I get so wrapped up in whatever moment is going on (at the park, at a school party) that I forget. It’s not like a social statement or whatever.

    • http://wtfihaveakid.blogspot.ca/ jendra_berri

      I used to belly dance. I asked my husband, who was studying photography, to take my picture during a performance. He did. I asked him how I did, and he didn’t know.

      With that in mind, when we went on our honeymoon, I insisted we take few pictures. Fond memories. I can still see it in my mind.

    • FF4life

      I’ve seen people literally watch an entire concert through their phones tiny screen while it was happening live in front of them. I stopped taking a lot of pictures once my daughter was big enough to not sit still for them. Then it was just annoying to try to get her to hold still just long enough for ONE not blurry picture. Now I just try to enjoy the moment.

    • FormerlyKnownAsWendy

      This is so perfect, Maria!

    • keanesian

      People used to say this about the alphabet.

    • EX

      My mother and my grandmother before her all excessively documented everything well before the age of iPhones. It would drive me nuts that we couldn’t sit down for a family meal without my mom jumping up to take pictures. She was often so busy taking pictures that I felt she wasn’t enjoying the moment at all. I’ve worked very hard against this inter-generational tendency. I do take pictures – but just a few at every event. Then I put the camera or phone down and enjoy myself. And it’s true – I didn’t document my daughter’s first steps either but I remember that like it was yesterday, better than I remember some of the events I did document.

    • Kay_Sue

      This has been a serious problem for my husband and me. Part of it is due to the fact that we spent two years apart–we took lots of photos so we could share them with each other.

      But there were a handful of things this year that changed our view. One, I shared down below, we actually caught a picture of a pier exploding during a fireworks display over the summer. Silly, maybe, but it does make you think about what exactly you are catching on “film” for posterity. When we’re mindlessly clicking through taking pictures, we’re not really thinking about the worth, so to speak, of the picture.

      Two, my mother in law made a great point at my brother-in-law’s wedding this year. She said, “I just don’t want to live my life through a screen. That’s not really living.”

      We still take photos–most of our family lives four states away, so it’s nice to have things to share–but we’re more careful about the number, and we put away the phones after a snap or two. It’s just impossible to be fully engaged when you are behind that little screen. We still videotape some big events (like our older son’s Cub Scout Bobcat badge reception), but they are fewer and further between now.

    • Guest12345

      In the end, parenting is hard enough without feeling like the world is judging you every time you are trying to enjoy an afternoon with your family. We don’t know why people are taking so many pictures. Maybe there is a sick grandmother in another state that lives for pictures of her little grandchild. Who knows? There are worse things in the world. Why can’t we just be nice to one another?

    • Ddaisy

      For the most part, I totally agree–put the camera down and enjoy life.
      BUT I must say, from the other side of the fence… Maybe I’m just really narcissistic, but I love watching videos of myself as a kid. The ones of “important events” (birthdays and dance recitals, etc.) are boring as heck, but I can’t get enough of the ones of my sisters and I just running around being ordinary goofballs. I know I’m biased, but seriously, we were hilarious. I kind of wish there were more videos of us.