For some 150 million users around the world, Instagram is an indispensable tool for broadcasting the tiny slices of life you deem most sharable, whether it's your cat curling into a fluffball or a pretty plate of Eggs Benedict.
A new study, however, claims that signal comes at a price. Researcher Linda Henkel at Fairfield University found that Instagram and similar photo applications may be making it harder for us to, well, remember stuff.
"We're kind of counting on our technology to keep our memories," says Henkel. "We collect photos almost as if they're trophies, or evidence, but that's not the same thing as trying to capture the experience." Here's how NBC News describes the experiment:
The study, which was published this week in the journal Psychological Science, was done at the Bellarmine Museum of Art, where people participating in the experiment were taken on a museum tour. They were told to photograph some of the objects, and to simply observe others. The next day, their memories were tested — and they remembered more details about the objects they observed than the objects they photographed. (They were even shown photos of things they had taken photos of, and they could not remember having seen those things at all, let alone photographing them.)
But in a second experiment, volunteers were instructed to zoom in on certain parts of a work of art. When their memories were later tested, they not only remembered the details of the part they'd zoomed in on, but they also remembered details from the rest of the piece. [NBC News]
Capturing and sharing life digitally, therefore, may be making it harder for our brains to recall details on cue. Now, before we get too far into it, the study does make an important point: Sometimes we do get far too absorbed into capturing and uploading moments that we fail to relish them, whether it is singing along to your favorite song at concert, or — as the experiment suggests — absorbing the emotional gravity of a work of art.
But let's overlook the fact that humans have been gazing at art, sunsets, and their friends through camera lenses for many, many decades now; moms have been asking their children to squish together in front of Christmas trees since time immemorial. The motions and mechanics of taking a photo may be faster. And the technology itself may be more compact. But the act of taking a photograph is unchanged.
So while photo-sharing applications like Instagram and Facebook are making it more difficult to remember specific details, it may be another example of our brains outsourcing mental resources. Social media, after all, has already proven that it can make us smarter in more ways than one.
Think about it. We already externalize cognition in several ways we didn't a decade ago: Instead of remembering and entering the 10 digits of friend's phone number, for example, we tap their name. Before that, we used a phone book. Or, instead of remembering landmarks and turns to get to a destination, we now look to Google Maps.
Instagram, likewise, helps us revisit what we saw, who we were with, and if need be, where we were.
The concept is hardly new. Augmenting our minds with technology was explored deeply in a 1998 paper called "The Extended Mind" by two philosophers, the University of Edinburgh's Andy Clark and Australian National University's David Chalmers. "Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?" they ask. Some people might say the skull, but Clark and Chalmers argue that the brain's faculties extend further into the outside world than we realize. (And this is pre-Google, mind you.)
The brain (or brain and body) comprises a package of basic, portable, cognitive resources that is of interest in its own right. These resources may incorporate bodily actions into cognitive processes, as when we use our fingers as working memory in a tricky calculation, but they will not encompass the more contingent aspects of our external environment, such as a pocket calculator. Still, mere contingency of coupling does not rule out cognitive status. [Consc.net]
As Clark and Chalmers suggests, coupling with our tools provide us with untold advantages over previous generations. It has always been this way. Keyboards helps us write faster than pencils; Google is now just a vocal request away; Instagram is a photo album unbound by the limitations of time and geography.
Surely, both the old and new possess advantages and disadvantages. But technology and progress only move in one direction. How quickly we forget that.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- The mystery behind China's aggressive push into space
- The best places to find love — and lust — according to science
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- Here's the schedule very successful people follow every day
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Why all drugs should be legal. (Yes, even heroin.)
- 7 ideas from ancient thinkers that will improve your modern life
- Boyhood's refreshingly unsentimental take on motherhood
- What's the difference between in- and un-?
- What religious traditionalists can teach us about sex
Subscribe to the Week