by Clark Zimmerman, LAc.
My grandpa was a character. By the time I knew him he had retired from a university professorship and moved to a farm in southern Illinois. He chain-smoked generic cigarettes and drank cheap beer in front of a small television set in his basement. He was indeed from a different era. He was also an exceptional card player. I remember countless games of Gin Rummy in that smoky basement. Even though my siblings and I were his grandkids, he never let us win. Grandpa was nearly impossible to beat because he had a photographic memory.
Needless to say, I grew up intrigued with the idea of having a photographic memory. I loved the idea of being able to remember everything that I read. Fast-forward thirty years: it seems that a different sort of “photographic memory” is becoming more common. This sort of memory is influenced by the widespread use of digital cameras and smart phones. Research conducted by Linda Henkel of Fairfield University has demonstrated what she refers to as “photo-taking impairment effect.” This term describes how taking more pictures is related to a decrease in people’s ability to remember an event. It seems that the brain doesn’t work as hard at remembering something if you can count on a picture to remind you of details. Like our muscles, the brain benefits from being challenged with tasks. It’s like the saying goes: “use it or lose it.” When we rely on something to do a task for us, we risk an increased likelihood of atrophy. It’s like if a healthy person refused to walk and chose instead to use a wheelchair to get around, it wouldn’t be too long before the person actually needed the wheelchair because their body would lose the ability to walk. So when we use a tool to remember things, we gradually lose our ability to recall things in an optimal way. Henkel also pointed out that when we document everything with photographs, we compromise the elastic nature of memory. A photograph is a “snap-shot” of a specific moment in time, but the shot is fixed in that it is only one perspective. When we look back at a photo of an event, we tend to see it through that limited, one-dimensional view. This can compromise the wholeness of a memory, confining it to an overly streamlined view. In addition to these things, relying on photos to remember things means that our memory of an event doesn’t have room to evolve. We think of our memories are being fixed in stone, but research has shown that our memories of events actually change over time. As we grow and our understanding and wisdom continue to develop, our relationship with the past changes with it. This allows us to mine new information from our past that helps us evolve into more complete human beings.
Of course, there are other potential issues with the overuse of digital photography. Most of us know of the overwhelm that happens when we begin to unpack all of the photos that we have taken. The process of sorting through and deleting photos and videos can take hours. We can be so intimidated by the process that we avoid it altogether, until we have thousands of photos that we never look at. Then we simply collect photos without them meaning much. Another issue is that rather than being present in the moment, too often people experience a place through the lens of a camera. This myopic view limits the fullness of the moment. I recently witnessed this on a trip to the Grand Canyon: everyone was looking at this amazing vista through a small screen. It seemed to me to be a missed opportunity to take in the real magic of this special place.
To be honest, I take pictures with my phone. I’m sure that there
are times that I overdo it. As I think about maintaining balance in my
life, I have been increasingly leaving the camera in my pocket, or at
home. If I do use it I am practicing taking one or two photos and
realizing that this is enough. I am more frequently focusing on being
in the moment, rather than photographing the moment and trying to
experience it later. If I ever were to develop a photographic memory, I
would want it to be like the one my grandfather had, not the diminished
capacity that is more typical of modern times.