Does Photography Distract You From Enjoying Life? It's Complicated

Does Photography Distract You From Enjoying Life? It's Complicated

If you’re like me, you spent yesterday evening flipping through dozens of eclipse photographs on social media. Whether you wanted to see them or not, there they were. All the blurry, grainy Instagram shots taken through cheap eclipse glasses got me thinking…how much did we actually experience this crazy, incredible, once-in-a-lifetime event, and how much of it was spent waiting for the perfect, “'gram-worthy” shot? Does photographing something take you out of the moment and prevent you from actually experiencing it? According to a study published in Psychological Science, it’s complicated.

Conducting several experiments in 2017, researchers discovered that taking pictures actually helped people remember visual information more accurately, whether or not they looked at those pictures later. An important caveat, though, is that the research subjects were found to retain less spoken information during the time that they were taking pictures. Not all that surprising, for any of us who have tried to hold a conversation while snapping photos. In one of the experiments, researchers asked participants to walk through a museum exhibit. One group was told to leave their phones and cameras outside, and the other was told to “take photos freely.” Both groups listened to an audio guide throughout the exhibit. Taking a memory test after the exhibit, the picture-taking group scored higher than the group that took no pictures on their ability to remember objects they had seen. However, they scored lower when it came to remembering facts from the audio guide.

Remembering visual information comes in handy, even if it comes at the cost of forgetting some spoken information, but what about the impact of photography when it comes to enjoying an experience? Linda Henkel, a professor of psychology at Fairfield University, said the results of the study point to the possibility that taking photos during an event may not actually be a distraction, and might even lead to a more memorable experience. Dr. Alix Barasch, one of the authors of the 2017 study, said she initially assumed photographing was a distraction, “but as we collected more and more data over the course of five or six years, we kept finding that photo-taking was actually immersing people more in experiences."

Don’t whip out your phone just yet, though. Dr. Barasch’s research group recently conducted another study on photo-taking, and found that for those photographers who take pictures mainly with the goal of sharing them on social media, the positive effects of heightened engagement and memory are diminished. This can increase anxiety: “Now you’re concerned about taking the perfect picture to get all the likes and comments,” she says. In short, go ahead and take that photo, just do it for yourself.

[via New York Times]

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3 Comments

Anonymous's picture

Since I don't do social media, I'm not distracted by that aspect of it. In fact, photography draws me more into the moment. A cool moment, that you would normally experience and then move on becomes something else. I study the moment. I examine the minutia. I look at it from various angles and think about, not just the thing, but the environment it's in. By the time I put my eye against the view finder, I've decided exactly what I think about the moment and can focus on it like a laser. It's a very Zen thing for me. That's why I would never shoot mirror-less and only use the back screen when working. YMMV

Robert Nurse's picture

During my "Zen moment", conversation is almost counter productive. They say that men are more visual. I'd be curious to know if the research took gender into account.

Dave McDermott's picture

That's a good point. I hadn't thought of that. :)