Take Fewer Pictures to Remember More

CC BY 2.0. Hendrik Wieduwilt -- A selfie with the London Eye

Don't allow your experiences to be mediated by a smartphone camera, or else you won't fully experience them.

I was sitting on a beach in southern California last week when I had a powerful realization. Despite being on vacation with my husband and enjoying time away from our kids for the first time in 4.5 years, I felt low-level anxiety over posting on social media. I was embarrassed to admit this to my husband, but it was true. I was slightly stressed about getting the 'right' pictures, about posting the perfect number of images -- not too much, not too little -- and, of course, looking good in all of them.

He was relieved to hear my admission of guilt. "Good, because it's felt like a bit much sometimes. You've always got your phone out." In that moment, I made a resolution. Enough with the Instagram stories and posts. I'd share things only in moments of downtime back at the hotel, and not while in the midst of something new and exciting. Instead, I'd focus on being present and on imprinting those memories in my brain, rather than my device.

I'm not the only one struggling to establish a sense of balance between experiencing the world firsthand in a conscious, mindful manner and sharing the excitement of it with friends, family, and readers via the Internet. We live in strange times when things seem only to have happened if they're posted on social media, and yet I'm starting to think that this is an unhealthy and insidious approach.

In an excellent article for the Globe and Mail, titled "Smartphones and our memories: Don't take a picture. It'll last longer", Brandon Ambrosino calls our society's obsession with recording every moment 'documentary vision.' He writes:

"Armed with smartphones, we are increasingly obsessed with documenting events we never truly experience... It’s kind of like how photographers look at everything as a potential photograph. If you have a hammer, everything is a nail; and if you have a camera with a nearly unlimited amount of memory – and most of us with smartphones and cloud storage do – then every moment you greet is fodder for documentation."

Much of the world is now viewed through screens, from spectacular fireworks displays to rollercoaster rides to family get-togethers. The act of snapping pictures or recording videos removes us from the present, as the experience is mediated by the device. Ambrosino says, "In other words, smartphones trick us into looking at the present moment as if it were already past. We are no longer remembering; we’re pre-membering."

Or, as comedian Demetri Martin once said, to my great delight, "The digital camera is a great invention because it allows us to reminisce. Instantly."

Curiously, our brains are unable to recall events clearly when we're busy taking pictures of them -- ironically, to help us remember them (or so we tell ourselves). A 2013 study on memory and photography found that when museum-goers took pictures of exhibits, they were less likely to remember them than if they did not take pictures at all. Said study author Linda Henkel of Fairfield University,

"The act of photographing the object appears to enable people to dismiss the object from memory, thereby relying on the external device of the camera to 'remember' for them."

I stuck to my decision and stopped allowing absurd social media goals to affect the enjoyment of my trip. It worked. On the very last day, my husband and I arrived at the end of a steep dirt trail to see the famous Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood sign. The view over Los Angeles was spectacular, a perfect photo op. "Do you have your phone?" I asked him. "Nope," he said.

So, instead of being like all the other couples who were looking away from the Hollywood sign and into their phones for a picture, we stared right at the sign, searing it into our brains. Along with that came the memory of the warm sunshine, the soft breeze, the murmur of traffic below, the mountains clear in the distance -- so much more than I ever could have captured in a quick selfie. And I know I'll never forget it.