Does our desire to capture every moment make us miss the big picture?

When I was growing up, I remember my mom meticulously organizing our photos in an album, pressed neatly underneath the cellophane pages. She would even create beautifully hand-designed covers with different materials that she would give as gifts to her friends. The photo albums were displayed on our coffee table or on a bookshelf where they were readily accessible if she wanted to show family members or friends that time my brothers and I went sledding for the first time, or the time we were in Disneyland and met Mickey Mouse, or the prom pictures when my hair was teased too high and my date nervously posed with his arm reaching around my waist.

We all remember the angst we felt when a film roll wasn’t complete, and we waited for an appropriate time to use up the last 2 pictures in the roll before we could drop it off for development at the drug store.

And then the excitement of receiving the photos— we were lucky if we got double prints, perhaps a deal that the store was having that week. We could only hope that the picture of us standing next to our friends on the last day of school had everyone looking at the camera, all eyes open, and nobody’s head cut off. Even better if you actually liked the way you looked in it. But it was all in the luck of taking the right shot. No second chances. After all, no one liked to waste film.

This was a time before highlighting, color-enhancing, photo-shopping; before selfies, snapchat, iphones, and facebook. This was a time when the limited photos were all we had to remind us of the big events in our lives. Never were photos taken daily and shared with 500 friends.

But we know the world has changed. And we’ve changed with it. Since the start of digital photography, iphones, and photo apps, we are now snapping more pictures than ever. According to the Social Times, which covers the world of social media, the average number of photos posted per second on Instagram is 810, Facebook 4500, and Snapchat over an astounding 8800. That is roughly 70 million to 760 million photos posted per day on these sites. And there were probably more photos taken than posted. After all, we can now take multiple pictures before we get the perfect one.

But is all this picture snapping too much? Are we sacrificing the moment and still missing the bigger picture, altogether? Psychologist Maryanne Garry of the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand seems to think so. Her research was conducted prior to the iphone release in 2007. Garry surmises that taking too many photos undermines the way people form memories, as they are substituting clicking the right shot, for being in the moment. Her research indicates that doctored (enhanced or substituted) as well as real photographs can cultivate false memories. She further concludes that while photographs do influence memory, they are not as strong as narrative — actually, remembering the details of a particular moment and the emotions that go along with it.

A more recent study published in 2014 by Linda Henkel, a psychologist at Fairfield University, CT, examines how well subjects recalled objects in an art museum. She asked students to simply observe 15 objects and photograph another 15 objects. The next day, the subjects that merely observed the objects had a greater recall of the details of the objects than those that were photographed. This is what she calls the photo-taking-impairment effect. “As soon as you hit ‘click’ on that camera, it’s as if you’ve outsourced your memory,” she says, adding that taking a photograph can relieve your brain of the need to form memories properly. However, her research also showed that properly focusing on one aspect of an object and zooming in on that aspect by focusing the lens appropriately, enhanced memory among the photo-takers.

“What I think is going on is that we treat the camera as a sort of external memory device,” Henkel says. “We have this expectation that the camera is going to remember things for us, so we don’t have to continue processing that object and we don’t engage in the types of things that would help us remember it.” However, focused attention to detail can improve memory processing. “It makes sense because research consistently shows that divided attention is absolutely an enemy of memory,” says Henkel.

So what should we, the obsessed picture-taking society, do to offset this new addiction and instead focus on the bigger picture? I thought of a few strategies to help be in the moment:

  1. SENSATIONS: Want to take a snap of that perfect sunset? How about first just taking a pause and letting the environment settle into your skin — see the golden colors surrounding the descending sun, feel the way the light breeze touches your face, hear the distant sounds of birds flying in the distance. There is an array of sensations that a picture cannot capture. But perhaps if you take the moment to get in touch with these sensations, the picture will help bring you back to them.
  2. EMOTIONS: Think about what is special about a moment before reaching for your camera. Is it gratitude you feel that all your family is together for the holidays? Is it an overwhelming sense of love you sense from your significant other as you pose for a pic outside your favorite restaurant? Is it the confidence that is invoked when you put on that sexy red dress? What are the emotions that are brewing in this moment? Let them surface before immediately clicking.
  3. CREATIVITY: Stop posting and start creating tangible albums. For me, there is still something special about flipping through pages of a book instead of swiping through my iphone or ipad. Why not create a photobook and add some narratives about the journey of pictures? Too often, we keep our special moments hidden on our phone thinking we will look at them again, but never do. I am guilty of storing thousands of photos on my icloud. Perhaps, knowing you are going to create a photo album will allow you take photos more intentionally instead of impulsively.
  4. TRUTH: Is the photo you are taking an authentic depiction of what is going on? Are you smiling because you’re happy or because someone told you to say cheese? Are you showcasing a true embrace of your loved one or trying to hide the bitterness of the fight you just had?

When your intention to take a photo is to convey anything other than what the moment truly is, you are fabricating a memory, and as a result showing the world and yourself a false persona.

I see this frequently on social media and it is toxic.

As the research suggests, we form memories when we are present, paying attention to detail, recalling the intricacies around a particular moment. We have the ability today to take hundreds of photos of these moments, but let’s make sure we do so with intention, authenticity, and emotion. And sometimes a picture may not be worth a thousand words. Maybe it’s you just being in the moment. How do YOU want to capture this moment in time?

Originally published at