Forgetting Memory – A Postscript


forgetting memories 1My last blog elicited comments from several readers on the impact of camera phones on memory.  Their comments were inspired by a recent NPR segment. After hearing it, I had to share it.

In case you missed it, last week’s blog examined the scientific rationale for the unreliability of memory—the physical and chemical reactions that create, store and modify what we recall of the events in our lives.

The NPR discussion suggested that using camera phones is actually impairing the formation of memory.

  • One hypothesis was offered by Maryanne Garry, a psychology professor at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. In her view, camera phone users are so focused on the process of picture-taking that they are not actually engaged in the event being photographed. Because they are not really observing the event that is being photographed, there is no information or data to go into memory.
  • A related hypothesis is based on research by psychologist Linda Henkel at Fairfield University in Connecticut. Henkel believes that when we “outsource” memory to a camera, we bypass the “mental cognitive processing” that allows us to actually remember.  In other words, we observe our surroundings, but the short-term memory is overwritten by new information before it can take root.

It does not follow that picture taking is bad. Rather, Henkel observes that “mindful” picture-taking—the sort that encourages you to examine specific details of the scene that you want to capture—does not impair memory formation.  And those pictures can provide “rich retrieval clues” when you go back and look at them.

Do you let your camera phone get in the way of memory formation?

Whether you do or not, check out the NPR segment. It’s fascinating. If by chance the NPR link doesn’t work, just Google npr overexposed camera phones.


  1. I often feel that I remember many things from my childhood because of the pictures my mother took. Were there no pictures, I wonder what I would remember?

    In an NPR interview I heard recently, an author talked about writing a memoir. She had journaled extensively during the events about which she was writing. When she went back to the journals, she discovered that she didn’t remember any of the things she’d written about, but had mentally stored entirely different memories.

    Journaling may be like picture taking. It necessarily holds certain specifics, while our minds are recording other things. I wish I could remember the author’s name but I was driving. The ‘journaled’ detail of an actual name is lost but the concept stayed in my mind.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Carol … a belated response … I have a very clear memory of a day at the zoo with my father and family friend. The problem is that when I look at the photo, I couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, if that. I couldn’t possibly “remember” it without the photo.