A recent study by cognitive psychologist Linda Henkel examines how viewing art through the lens of a cellphone hinders our ability to remember it. In addition, we have all become much more concerned with digitally capturing what is in front of us than with actually seeing it. Even for those who want to visually ponder the art at museums, it is often difficult to make your way past the crowd of cellphone photographers. So how does this affect our ability to remember the artwork?
By Megan Guerber
Dr. Henkel recently conducted a study with students at Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Museum of Art. Students followed a guided tour of the museum and then were asked to study certain objects. The following day, these students were asked questions about what they saw. Dr. Henkel’s study showed that the students who photographed the objects recalled fewer details than those who merely observed them. Dr. Henkel describes this effect as “photo-taking impairment.” Allowing a camera to serve as our memory hinders our ability to recall important details later.
As Dr. Henkel told LiveScience, “It occurred to me that people often whip out their cameras and cellphones to capture a moment and were doing so almost mindlessly and missing what was happening right in front of them.”
The rate at which technological advancements occur is exciting, yet also challenging to study its effects. It could be centuries before we understand how cellphone cameras, among other external memories, affect our cognitive development. Studies like Dr. Henkel’s are important markers of some of the immediate consequences.
While technology has improved our lives in many ways, it has also impacted our ability to be present. Instead of focusing on a work of art before us, we focus on our cameras capturing its image. We can also quickly snap an almost endless number of images, begging the question that volume later devalues information.
There is an ease to smartphone technology that is difficult to separate from one’s life. Why would we not use technology to help document—and connect—with artwork? With the pace of life ever increasing, we value what little time we have. In many ways, we rely on technology in order to keep up.
As Dr. Henkel told LiveScience, “Years ago when I was at the Grand Canyon, I remember someone coming up to the canyon’s edge, taking a shot with their camera and then walking away, like ‘got it—done!’ barely even glancing at the magnificent scene sprawling in front of them.” It all boils down to living in the moment, so try taking a look before grabbing a camera—chances are, you will better remember that work of art.
You can read Dr. Henkel’s article, which includes a follow up study examining the effects of a zoom lens, here.