Selfies and Memory

I don’t take selfies.

Don’t get me wrong; I love photographs. I have them up all over my walls at home and my office. But the process of selfie-taking is where the problem arises.

My Take

Contrast these two examples. In the first one, shared in Big Think, an elderly woman with dementia has severe memory limitations. But when you pull out her photo album, the images trigger memories that were thought long gone. It evokes a depth of her personality that rarely emerges.

“Photos are no longer about remembering an event; they’re about displaying, showing the world who we are.”

In the second example, an individual finds herself in front of a beautiful scene. Rather than step back and gaze, she turns around, points her phone towards her face with the scene in the background, and snaps the shot. She checks the image on the screen to make sure it captured the whole scene. The interaction is now with the photo rather than the scene itself. The photo ends up in the cloud, among thousands of other photos she took this year.

The key difference here is the focus of attention. Not just the visual attention, but the cognitive side. Instead of appreciating the scene, event, or experience, we are checking the photo to make sure it has the right photo attributes: focus, zoom, and lighting. Were we smiling? Does it fit my Pinterest categories or will I have to create a new one? We might remember how great a photo we got, but not what is actually in the photo.


After drafting this post, I went home and found my Boston Sunday Globe in the mailbox (I still love real paper) with this excellent column from Jeff Jacoby. He takes it a step further and advocates not taking any kind of photo.

Jacoby cites examples as diverse as author Paul Theroux, who travels the world as a travel writer and claims that “Without a camera, you study a thing more carefully and remember it better.” (Depth of processing anyone?). And Telegraph columnist Nick Trend, who claims that “We remember things better if we haven’t interrupted or compromised the experience by taking a photograph of it.” (Divided attention anyone?).

He also cites research from Dr. Linda Henkel, whose research finds that the cognitive processing involved in taking the picture detracts from the processing of encoding the memory.

Your Turn

OK, I admit this was a bit of a soapbox post today. But I am not the only one who thinks this way. Paul Jeffrey also has an interesting take.

So what is yours?

Image Credit: Basi

2 thoughts on “Selfies and Memory”

  1. Thanks Marc! Enjoyed your post.

    I often wonder about the ‘selfie’ phenomenon. It seems the whole paradigm around photography has changed to some sort of self-obsessive behavior. The experience/ moment is no longer in the environment, people, and interactions around you, it is now in that one photo with a face that’s yours – for Facebook! I wonder if it is more Facebook induced behavior than anything else!

  2. The next step is even scarier. Advertisers are grabbing one of your selfies (which you unknowingly gave them the rights to in some user agreement you clicked on) and use that in an advertisement for whatever they are selling.

    Imagine you see a car ad with a smiling family driving in a new VW Jetta and it hits you that it is YOUR family you are looking at.

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