Retort: There is no "photo-taking impairment effect"

The recent study by Linda Henkel of Fairfield University about “photo-taking impairment effect” is the latest in a long series of attacks on photography and it’s adding fervor to the media’s hatred of technology. Apparently, it wasn’t enough to attack iPhone users for being apparently inattentive because they’re reading, listening to music, or otherwise engaged in something they care about. (See this prior article.) Now the front has shifted to the camera in the phone, and the media has rushed to tell us how destructive photography is to our ability not only to interact with an experience, but that the recording of that experience affects our memory. They’re wrong.

Contrary to the media’s distortions, participating in an event (which includes photographing it) is a form of involvement which increases our memory. Indeed, the more things we do while experiencing something, the stronger will be our memory because more senses are involved, more thoughts are involved, and the neurons recording these different aspects of our involvement will be linked, creating a stronger impression in the mind which can be recalled from more numerous paths. This is called “associative memory,” and you experience it all the time. It’s how you navigate by landmarks. It’s how you remember a phone number when you are looking at the number pad. It’s how you learned to read. It’s also the ancient psychological basis for memorizing massive amounts of information: the “memory palace” is based on associating something you want to remember with other things, so that recalling any one of those things will help you recall the rest. It’s powerful, and it’s how the participants in memory challenges are able to do what they do.

When we want to remember something, we need a trigger (or cue, or door, or path, or any number of other terms, which are all insufficient to describe the complexity of memory recall). For Proust, it was the taste of a madeline cookie which brought back the memories. The media could learn a thing or two from literature. Proust writes of the experience of recalling many memories from a single cue (he was flowery, so I’ll edit it a bit):

[O]ne day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea . . . . She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines,’ which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted scallop of a pilgrim’s shell. And soon, mechanically, weary after a dull day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin.

* * *
I place in position before my mind’s eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed. 
Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, has tried to follow it into my conscious mind.
* * *
And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray . . . when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. . . .
Swann’s Way, Vol. 1 of Remembrance of Things Past

That’s the power of associative memory: significant emotional and factual events had taken place in Proust’s life while having a madeline with his aunt, and those memories were associated with others making a network of context. He needed only to find a path to one door to access the whole contents of his memories—and Remembrance of Things Past is six volumes. That’s a lot of synaptic bang from one cookie.

Proust is not the only one who observed that memory is a visual experience. As far back as 400 B.C. the Greek Dialexis discussed the dominance of the visual sense in memory. Likewise, Aristotle described the method of using images to order memories. This stuff isn’t new.  In The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, Mary Carruthers, Ph.D,  explained the importance of the visual sense:
Even what we hear must be attached to a visual image. To help recall something we have heard rather than seen, we should attach to their words the appearance, facial expression, and gestures of the person speaking as well as the appearance of the room. The speaker should therefore create strong visual images, through expression and gesture, which will fix the impression of his words. All the rhetorical textbooks contain detailed advice on declamatory gesture and expression; this underscores the insistence of Aristotle, Avicenna, and other philosophers, on the primacy and security for memory of the visual over all other sensory modes, auditory, tactile, and the rest.
The Book of Memory at 122.

The point of using our memory isn’t an academic exercise: we don’t remember things because we are going to be tested and graded. We remember things because the moment is significant to us as an individual and want to be able to recall it. Furthermore, we are more likely to remember things we want to share. What better image is there to use to trigger memory than a high resolution photograph? To take that photograph you had to look at the scene, and in looking with attention neural impressions were made, along with other associations. 

Photography is a visual alphabet, and a photograph is a book: literally, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” It’s worth at least a thousand words because looking at an image will trigger all that juicy contextual memory. Looking at an image will not only inform you of the facts of what was recorded, saving your brainpower for working on other recollection tasks, but it will trigger the memories of the time you made the image, the place, your mood, the people around you, your motivation for making the image in the first place—a set of memories which would take a small volume to describe with words, and a set of neuron paths in your mind which enable you to recall the experience.

What Ms. Henkel and others have an issue with (to the extent they have any point to make at all) isn’t the effect on someone making an image: it’s the effect on someone applying the “spray and pray” approach of wholly inattentive and non-participatory picture-taking. As I discussed in Retort: You don’t need to spend $1,000 to take better pictures:
[P]lace yourself so that your subject has a contextual background so that the image will tell more of a story. [Time] the shutter to capture the moments you want to capture. (“Spray and pray,” as it’s called, is not only a very poor approach to making good images, but it’s disrespectful to yourself. If you aren’t looking for specific moments, why are you bothering to take pictures in the first place? If you’re looking for specific moments, then you don’t need to pray, and you certainly shouldn’t ever spray.)
If you’re just spraying and praying, you aren’t engaged in the act of making an image. But it’s sophistry for Ms. Henkel and others to equate inattentive spraying with the intentional taking of a photograph. The two acts couldn’t be more different, and the fact that Ms. Henkel and the Guardian conflate them is yet a further demonstration of how little people understand the process that is photography. Moreover, inattention is inattention no matter what you’re doing as a distraction. Staring blankly into space forms fewer memories than even Ms. Henkel fears are being made, but it gives the appearance of more participation. 

Rather than trumpeting the supposed ill effects of photography, maybe the media should try dipping the corner of a photographic print into some tea and enjoy the effects. But I doubt they will, since then they’d have to confront the Proustian truth that a memory triggered by a photograph any one of us makes is worth far more than a thousand of their misguided and mistaken words.

Snap away, share your images, ponder them, take as long as you like to revisit them again and again, and enjoy your memory like never before!