In the middle of Hong Kong Island is a mountain known as the Peak. A cable car climbs the slope from the city, arriving at a building called the Peak Tower. Take the escalators to the top and you’ll find one of the most breathtaking views in the world.
On one side is the forest of skyscrapers that makes up the megacity of Hong Kong. On the other, trees cover the mountain as it sweeps down to the ocean, which itself stretches out to the horizon. A cool wind from the sea washes over Peak Tower, and on the currents above, raptors drift, looking for prey. Below, through Hong Kong’s hazy air, helicopters fly, and further out boats slip through the harbour across giant waves that look almost gentle from the Peak.
I stood there for almost two hours when I was in Hong Kong recently. I didn’t want the experience to end. I wanted to soak it up, not knowing if I would be back. I took a few photos, but most of the time I just looked out over the edge.
If you want to better remember an experience, focus on the experience itself and then supplement it, so the photographs serve as cues to the key aspects. That’s what will lead to the richest memory traces.
Before long, the other tourists in my group left and new ones arrived. This happened several times, and the more I watched, the more puzzled I became. Over and over, I saw people stand at the edge with their phones and cameras. They would take one picture, look at it, delete it, then take another.
Some people did this again and again until they got the right one. When satisfied, they left. Another time, I watched an entire family take some photos, then sit down on a bench and stare at their phones for half an hour. They barely seemed to know where they were.
Were they really present on the Peak Tower? Or were they only partly there and partly elsewhere, lost in “the cloud” where they could post their pictures for everyone to see? Was this simply a performance for their online audience? Were they so desperate to capture an experience that they were willing to not even have it?
I worked myself up into a state over this, and since then, I have given this phenomenon a lot of thought. It seems we are afraid that if we can’t capture an image of an experience, it wasn’t real. The quantity of photographs we take every day is staggering: 60 million posted to Instagram, 350 million uploaded to Facebook, 400 million added to Snapchat. One 2012 estimate put the number of photos taken on mobile phones at 1.4 billion every day.
“The possession of a camera can inspire something akin to lust,” Susan Sontag wrote in her 1977 treatise On Photography. “And like all credible forms of lust, it cannot be satisfied: first because the possibilities of photography are infinite; and second, because the project is finally self-devouring.”
This becomes an issue when we are out in the world. “Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs,” Sontag wrote. “A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it.”
While photos used to be seen as a way of documenting a journey, they now risk becoming the point of it. It’s a departure from older notions of travel, in which the ostensible purpose was to take in new things, to let them become part of you, and to make you a richer, more interesting, possibly even wiser person. That line of thinking can be traced back through Jack Kerouac to Mark Twain to Henry David Thoreau, who wanted to live deliberately, not to have pictures of himself doing it.
Linda Henkel, a memory researcher at Fairfield University in Connecticut, has been researching the effect of photo-taking on memory. “I was interested in exactly this issue,” she told me when I called her. “We have a beautiful museum on campus, and people go there and take photographs of things. But when you watch them doing it, they barely look at the objects.”
In a study she designed, Henkel took 27 undergraduates and had them go to the museum, where they photographed 15 items and observed 15 others. The next day, they were tested on which objects they remembered seeing. “What we found,” she says, “was that people remembered fewer of the objects — and they remembered fewer details about an object — if they had taken a photograph of it than if they had just looked at it. So the act of taking a photograph actually impaired their memory.”
What’s most likely at work here (in addition to divided attention), she says, is what’s called “directed forgetting,” where we tell our brain that it doesn’t need to remember something. “Once we hit that button,” she says, “it’s as if we’re sending a signal to our brain: You don’t have to think about this, you don’t have to process this, you don’t have to consolidate it, because the camera is going to store the information.”
Photographs, of course, are good at capturing details we might not otherwise remember, and for documenting things (such as Rotary projects) we need to report on. Some technology enthusiasts say this is precisely the point: We can store information electronically, freeing up our minds for other uses. They call this “distributed cognition,” and maintain that expanded digital memory effectively increases our intelligence.
But with smartphones and digital photography, we take far more photos than we could ever organise or look at. “People have a thousand photos on their smartphones,” Henkel says, “and they’re overwhelmed with trying to go through them and look at them. So they collect the photographs but don’t actually use them. And collecting photographs isn’t going to benefit memory.”
More to the point, a photo and a memory are different things. To create a memory from an experience, you need to engage in the process of turning it into something richer and more meaningful than a bunch of pixels. You need to come back to it, think about it, and remember it. Henkel recommends that we take fewer photos and be more deliberate about the ones we do take. Then we should find other ways of layering meaning onto our memories — by writing about them, reflecting on them, and sharing them with people in our lives, and not only online.
“Photographs are wonderful memory tools,” she says. “I still take photos. But if you want to better remember an experience, focus on the experience itself and then supplement it, so the photographs serve as cues to the key aspects. That’s what will lead to the richest memory traces.”
The photos we take should be like signs that point down the path to our memories. The things outside the frame are what give an experience the texture that makes it real. The memory I have of the Peak Tower, for example, contains so many things, including the sun and the wind and a feeling of wonder, all of which I will never forget. And for me, that’s worth far more than a thousand words, or even a million likes.
Reproduced from The Rotarian