Selfies and the Corrosion of Human Memory

In an attempt to be original, to stand out amongst the almost 300 million other selfies on Instagram, we actually fade into the background. We become mundane. Photos are no longer about remembering an event; they’re about displaying. They’re about showing the world who we are, who we wish to be. And it's damaging our ability to remember.

In the third book of the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of Narcissus. The son of the river-god Cephisus and the “loveliest of nymphs” Liriope, Narcissus was blessed with overwhelming good looks. Everyone fell in love with him. One day, while out hunting, Narcissus bends down to take a drink from a fountain. He sees his reflection and immediately falls in love with himself, not unlike the hordes of people who insist the world needs more selfies.

Like anything that’s indulged too much, taking scores of photos depreciates what we’re attempting to capture; the memories don’t seem as memorable anymore. In an attempt to be original, to stand out amongst the almost 300 million other selfies on Instagram, we actually fade into the background. We become mundane. Photos are no longer about remembering an event; they’re about displaying, showing the world who we are. Or perhaps more accurately, showing the world who we wish to be.

Rhett Allain, an associate professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University, recently examined all the pictures he takes. “Just like most humans, I tend to take pictures of tons of things,” he says. “Oh look, a water fountain. Now I’m at my kid’s soccer match — more pictures. Is that flower near the road? You get the idea, right? We all take a bunch of pictures.” Allain estimates he’s taken 14,000 photos so far this year. He takes over 65 photos a day.

Mylio, a small company made up of photographers, estimates that 1 trillion photos will be taken in 2015 and they project that number to grow 16.2 percent year over year. If all those photos were printed out as 4 X 6-inch prints and attached to each other, end-to-end, you could make a complete round trip to the sun and back.

Since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us.

— Jonathan Franzen

Mary, my friend Mike’s grandmother, is almost 99 years old. She lives by herself just outside Washington DC and has a live-in caretaker who helps her manage the challenges of day-to-day living. Doing laundry, cooking dinner, vacuuming. All those things you and I take for granted. But, like many older Americans, she suffers with dementia. She has significant trouble remembering things. Ask her how old she is and she makes up a number. Ask her who the president is and she says Bill Clinton. And most disheartening, when she sees her grandson she doesn’t recognize him. Dementia affects nearly 50 million people worldwide, with more than 7 million new cases every year, of which Alzheimer’s disease makes up 60-70 percent. It’s a horrible thing for anyone to go through.

In a recent visit, Mike took down an old photo album from a dusty shelf and spent the afternoon reminiscing with her about the memories contained within it. As they perused the photographs, Mary began to remember things. She began to put people and places together. Something within those pictures triggered her long-term memory, and she remembered events that heretofore had been forgotten. Sitting together, looking through old photographs, recalling crazy Uncle John and how he used to make hand-farts with his armpits, brought my friend’s grandmother into current time, into the here and now. She also eventually remembered Mike, and it was delightful.

Physical photo albums engender feelings. They remind us of things. And more than the photos, the communal viewing of the album, the sharing provoked by flipping its pages creates a special moment, like that between Mike and Mary. I’m not sure that moment would have been possible with digital photos or digital photo albums. 

When was the last time you sat around a computer or your iPad to view old photos? Worse, have you ever been corralled around someone else’s iPad to view old albums? It seems almost a violation to do so. There is something cold, sterile, and removed about a communal viewing of past memories stored on Google Photos or in a Facebook album. It’s too fleeting, too ephemeral. It’s almost as if there’s no time to review them. We need to move on to the next batch because there are so many we have to get through.

Photos used to be rare. They were difficult to take, cost money to develop, and, as such, possessed intrinsic value. That's all changed. Not only has technology reduced the cost of producing a photograph, but also, as some scientists believe, the advent of digital photography has fundamentally altered the way we remember.

Psychologist Maryanne Garry of the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand claims that taking too many photos can distort memories. They can alter the way we remember what really happened. In 2014, Garry told NPR that "I think that the problem is that people are giving away being in the moment," she says. "Then they've got a thousand photos, and then they just dump the photos somewhere and don't really look at them very much, 'cause it's too difficult to tag them and organize them," she says. "That seems to me to be a kind of loss."

Digital cameras remove us from the present. And afterwards, when we review the thousands of photos we’ve taken, they are just another thousand photos. They aren’t special. Instead of Mary reviewing dozens of photos that captured major parts of her life, imagine she had thousands. They would be meaningless. And the chances of her recalling anything related to those precious times in her life would be near zero. Capturing a colossal number of photos of any event is indirectly proportional to your ability recall the event later on. It cheapens it because you didn’t live the moment; you were too busy documenting it.

We’ve lost the magic of photography and that leaves me wondering about the future. What happens when we reach Mary’s age? Will we have some way to reconnect with ourselves, with who we were, if our pictures are no longer memories, but rather simply artifacts too voluminous to process? Or worse, what if our pictures are nothing but selfies? What exactly will we be remembering?

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