Meadville Tribune

January 7, 2014

Taking too many pictures may be killing your brain's memory

By Nina Bell
Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — With smart phones, digital cameras and other technologies, we are taking far more pictures than ever before. While photographs are nice for capturing the moment, they may actually be hurting your memory.

A recent study by psychologist Linda Henkel of Fairfield University in Connecticut revealed that people who take pictures have worse memories than those who simply looked at and studied the subject of that picture without whipping out the camera.

Henkel set up her research experiment by leading undergraduate students on a tour of Bellarmine Museum of Art at the university, asking them to take note of things either by photographing them or looking at them. The next day, the students were asked to recall information from their tour. Of interest, those who studied the objects rather than snapping a photograph of them were better able to recall the objects as well as some of their details.

The effect was coined “photo-taking impairment effect.”

According to research, we have become far too reliant on technology to do the work for us that we’ve trained our minds to be lazy. In this case, the camera was expected to take over for brain function. In Psychological Science, where some details of this research were presented, Henkel concluded that “the sheer volume and lack of organization of digital photos for personal memories discourages many people from accessing and reminiscing about them. In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos” rather than just snap and forget about them.

In another study by the same researcher, people were asked to look at various photographs of the same completed action — one that they never actually performed themselves. They were later asked if they remembered participating in that action. Of interest, the study found that “despite being wrong, people stated with relatively high confidence that they did remember performing the falsely attributed actions,” meaning that by regular exposure to photographs leaves a memory impression that they were physically involved in that picture in some way.

The key element here: The mind is a powerful tool. Because of that, most of us do not want to lose that power.

Harvard Health came up with a good list of what to do to improve your brain, and none of them involved taking pictures. Here are my favorite four for keeping your mind sharp:

- Keep learning. Whether you read or take formal classes, keep your brain challenged so that you will stimulate those cells to function properly. Better yet, try to complete the newspaper’s crossword puzzle every day!

- Use all your senses. Don’t just look at something (or take a picture of it), but smell it, listen to it, touch it and perhaps taste it. Studies have shown that the more senses that are involved with an element, the better you will be able to retain and recall that memory.

- Believe in yourself. Self doubt will have you on the road to poor health, especially memory. Harvard Health states that those who are positive thinkers and believe they can be sharp will have improved memory power.

- Repeat what you want to remember. Write down a thought or a fact you want to remember, read it over and over or repeat it several times to commit it to memory. Research has proven that this type of action has improved the memories of those with cognitive issues. Think about what it can do for healthy brains.

It’s OK to take pictures, but remember, use your brain regularly and don’t rely on a camera to remember something for you. It likely won’t help and could hurt you in the long run.

Nina Bell, Ph.D., MPH, is a public health professor with Ashford University and works in health promotions for the Meadville Family YMCA. She is a co-author of the book “Community and Public Health,” published by Bridgepoint Education Inc. You can email her at