Afterward, when given a memory test, those who took pictures better recalled objects they had seen, but were less able to remember facts from the audio guide, than those who didn’t take pictures. Focusing on visuals pulls our attention away from other senses, like hearing, Dr. Barasch explained.
In related experiments, participants toured virtual art galleries with the option to take onscreen snapshots. The researchers found similar gains in memory when participants were asked to take screenshots compared with conjuring mental images.
The findings suggest that the process of looking around for what to photograph “actually causes you to encode visual content and remember it,” Dr. Barasch said.
Michael C. Hout, an assistant professor of psychology at New Mexico State University, questioned the practical importance of the findings. While the observed effects on memory were statistically significant, taking photos might mean “you remember 2 or 3 percent better,” he said.
However, Linda Henkel, a professor of psychology at Fairfield University, thought the study was noteworthy because it challenges the popular assumption that taking photos is often a distraction.
Dr. Barasch said she too initially suspected that casual photography was removing people from the moment. “But as we collected more and more data over the course of five or six years, we kept finding that photo taking was actually immersing people more in experiences,” she said.
There’s an important caveat: In research that hasn’t been published yet, her group found that taking pictures with the primary goal of sharing them on social media can counteract the positive effects of deeper engagement and memory.
“Now you’re concerned about taking the perfect picture to get all the likes and comments,” which can increase anxiety, she said.
As for whether I should take photos during the eclipse, Dr. Barasch encouraged me to go for it — as long as I’m doing it for myself, and not to elicit reactions on Instagram or Snapchat.
I suspect the decision will come to me in the final moments. Veteran eclipse chasers warn against wasting totality getting photos, and I know my amateur photography skills won’t do the sky justice. But taking just a few photos or videos to document the mood around me, as the horizon becomes a 360-degree sunset, the wind picks up, people gasp and maybe even birds or crickets start chirping? That’s something I might get joy out of in the moment, and for years to come.
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