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How smartphone photography is burying our memories

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Bhooli bisri chand umeedein, chand fasaney yaad aaye,

Tum yaad aaye, tumhare saath zamaaney yaad aaye…


I remember, once as a chirpy teenager, picking up my mother’s sepia-tinted pictures from the dusty steel trunk, I’d found in the attic. That morning, we sat next to each other on the sun-soaked veranda, talking about the old photos one by one.

Although she couldn’t recall exactly where and when each one was taken, every photo triggered a story. My mother literally brought the images to life as they carried a whirlwind of emotions.

From hearty laughs to sniffles, we relived every picture, and I learnt more about her than I’d ever known before. In one of the pictures, she was a small girl dressed in a floral patterned frock, and her hair tied in neat pigtails. She had placed her arm on my aunt’s shoulder. She recounted how they had tanned themselves by playing hopscotch till sunset that day. Only to get scolded later in the evening, and sent to bed too early the same night.

In another picture, she is seen posing with a lively bunch of girls with a white ambassador car in the background. The girls were her Kashmiri Pandit friends from school. The vintage car belonged to their Dad who had taken the girls for a Sunday outing that day. Her eyes brimmed with tears as she remembered how life took a strange turn in the following years. Then came my favorite picture, my brother stood in my mom’s lap wearing a spick and span school uniform and a tiny satchel.

She recalled his first day at school, and how she had spent the entire morning preparing his tiffin. In a whirl of excitement, she had actually forgotten to keep the lunch box in his bag. We both burst out in peals of laughter by reminiscing it.

The concept of clicking photographs has undergone a sea change since then. From everlasting memoirs preserved in quaint frames, they have been reduced to “digital distractions in form of Instagram, and Snap chat stories” which get evaporated within 24 hours. One blink and they are gone. And then there is a barrage of hashtags, which promise you to get more likes and comments.

No longer, do these pictures hold any personal connection, and make us walk down memory lane.  On the contrary, we’re often so distracted by taking pictures that we can’t remember what we saw, forgetting the very thing we wanted to capture. Using a smartphone takes us away from the moment, shifts our memory, and ultimately changes the way we recall what has happened in our own lives, researchers say.

Ubiquitous smartphones with their built-in cameras have, for the past decade, helped us produce more photographs than ever before. An estimated 1.2 trillion photos were taken in 2017, and more than 3 billion images were shared across social media every day.

“When you take a photo of something, you’re counting on the camera to remember for you. You’re basically saying, ‘Okay, I don’t need to think about this any further. The camera’s captured the experience.’ You don’t engage in any of the elaborative or emotional kinds of processing that really would help you remember those experiences, because you’ve outsourced it to your camera,” the studies say.

An intensive social media habit can impair the way we store memories, researchers have found. A 2018 study confirmed that participants were less likely to remember objects they photographed than objects they simply observed. This is known as the “photo-taking-impairment effect” and was first identified in 2014.

But if we really want to preserve certain memories, it’s going to take some mental effort, and truly letting the observer in you unfold. 

It means paying closer attention to our surroundings. It means using our cameras mindfully to focus on the details we truly want to remember. It means putting down the camera for a few moments to notice what the air feels like, what the streets smell like, and writing down our feelings about being there.

Smartphones can help with this process: They can store information and serve as memory cues to help us retrieve it later on. But we can’t offload everything to them.

One consistent finding from research says that intentional memory making takes some effort.

Rereading material doesn’t help a student memorize exam answers. No, it’s the hard work of digging down into our memories and reconstructing a piece of information from scratch that makes it easier to retrieve later.

(Views expressed are personal. Feedback at [email protected])