EXPERT: Facebook Is Re-Sculpting Our Memory
For much of history, the only way to chronicle life was to write about it. Now, many of us take selfies on our smartphones to share on Facebook, and create picturesque albums of our daily meals on Instagram. And as the mediums we use to recall and review the past change, so do our very memories.
Daniel Schacter, a psychology professor at Harvard University, first established the effects of photographs on memories in the 1990s. In one experiment, he showed that it was possible to implant false memories by showing subjects photos of an event that they could have conceivably experienced, but didn’t. In another, he found that not only did looking at photos boost the memory of that particular event, but also impaired memories of events that happened at the same time and were not featured in the photographs. The primary focus of Schacter’s lab is on how memory relates to other cognitive abilities. His research has shown that weaknesses in our memory are positive attributes in allowing us to think meaningfully about the future.
“Photographs have the potential to distort memory,” he says. “When we threw in photographs of events that could’ve happened within the sequence but didn’t, they would become a false memory.”
To put that in a real world context, excessive scrolling through photos from a party last year could make you swear you remember Harry’s terrible late-night karaoke, when in fact you went home at 9pm.
There’s also a phenomenon called “retrieval-induced forgetting”: Photographs can not just remind us of events, but determine which events we forget. “If you go on vacation and review photographs for certain elements of that vacation, it’s also the case that the related things that you don’t review may be harder to remember,” says Schacter.