Thursday, February 26, 2015

"Shutterbug Parents"

A couple days ago I came across a New York Times article that discusses the reconstruction of memories that comes with photographic documentation of children. Dr. Linda Henkel, a professor of psychology at Fairfield University, calls it a "photo-taking impairent effect." She compares the phenomenom to stories relatives tell at the dinner table on Thanksgiving as opposed to what really happened. "The physical photo doesn't change over time, but the photo becomes the memory," she says. The 2014 study she conducted shows that people are less likely to remember details of things they have photographed than they are to remember details of things they did not photograph. This is due to an outsourcing of memory; the subjects relied on the photograph and therefore did not feel the need to pay much attention to details. Because of this, certain details that are in the photo can "assume a greater role" than details that are not in the photo and thus forgotten (Wayne, Shutterbug Parents and Overexposed Lives).

This results in a third-person perspective effect. You may not have any recollection of your first birthday party, but perhaps the cake in the photograph triggers your memory. Your memory is now dependent on the details in the photograph. It is hard to say whether your cake was vanilla as you recall it—because you see white icing in the photograph—or if it was actually chocolate. You have no independent memory; it has been reconstructed based on what you see.

Children are no strangers to this third-person perspective effect, but the article suggests that with the increasing popularity of camera-enabled smartphones and instant photo sharing platforms. parents as well as children will have altered recollections. Captions can also overshadow original memories by highlighting specific details but not others.

Just a decade or so ago, parents did not take nearly as many photographs of their children as they do now. Henkel speculates, "Maybe taking photos is a way to compensate for not being in the moment." While the trends seen in her study do seem to support that conclusion, I disagree. I believe taking photos has enhanced my experience (this only applies to photographs I have taken myself). Perhaps I feel this way because I am still young and have less memories to remember, so everything is still relatively fresh in my mind. I view photographs as part of the experience. I still remember how long it took to get everyone in the picture, the many requests for retakes, the search for just the right lighting, and the ever difficult composition of the perfect Instagram caption. But talk to me in 50 years. I'll probably have a different opinion then.

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