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Are smartphones destroying our ability to form memories?

June 14, 2014
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selfie Are smartphones destroying our ability to form memories?

Technology is changing how we form memories

Smartphones have become a way to document our daily lives and instantly share them with friends and family, so how could they be hurting our memory? It seems like they would be helping to preserve daily memories, so we can look back on them over time, but new research states this may not be true.

Research by Fairfield University psychologist, Linda Henkel, suggests that taking a camera-ready approach to your life may indeed cause you to forget things. It makes sense, when you think about it. When you are at an event that you want to record to see again at a later time, whether it is a concert, your child’s game, or a vacation, you pull out your camera, but before you can start recording you have to make sure it is focused and your subject is in the frame.

bar Are smartphones destroying our ability to form memories?
Instead of experiencing the event in the moment, you only see what will fit in your viewscreen. If you happen to receive an email or text and your recording stops, you miss even more of the event. The principle at work here is that “if you don’t encode, you can’t retrieve,” meaning that unless you pay attention to what is going on around you, the experiences will not be stored in your long-term memory.



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Add in a dash of distraction

Selfies and smartphone photography may be a particularly bad memory-killer because they distract you even more fully from experiencing an event because you are more likely to be trying to achieve the perfect shot.

In an effort to prove the principle that recording, rather than participating in life can contribute to memory loss of the event, Henkel took a group of college students on a museum tour and asked them to photograph fifteen works of art and view another fifteen without taking photos.

The students had thirty seconds to view art they did not photograph and but had to divide their time when photographing (twenty seconds to look and ten to take the photo). The next day, Henkel gave them a memory test to see what they remembered, and the students remembered fewer of the photographed objects.

Upon consideration, Henkel was worried that this could be due to the shorter amount of time the students were give to photograph, so she tried the test again, giving them the same amount of time and adding another condition: this time students were asked to select a single feature of the artwork and zoom in on it. When the students were given the memory test, the remembered the artwork and the part they had zoomed in on. By focusing on a feature, they improved their cognitive memory process.

What does this study tell us?

While capturing moments of our lives on our smartphones or other cameras is a great way to preserve a memory, we should not let it keep us from living in the moment. By using our cognitive thought processes, we will be more likely to retain the memory long term, and that is better than being able to immediately post to social media.

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