When It Comes to Vacation Memories, ‘Focus before Facebook’
The best way to preserve a memory is to process it mentally before posting a selfie on social media, Baylor University psychologist says
WACO, Texas (June 3, 2019) — In this digital age, what's more important when you're on vacation — the experience itself or the selfie that proves you were there?
If you want to preserve the memories, it's best to process the experience before you post the photo — a modern-day twist on the adage “think before you speak,” says Charles Weaver, Ph.D., professor and chair of psychology and neuroscience in Baylor University’s College of Arts & Sciences.
While pictures and videos allow people to document an event, they don’t help them focus on the experience itself, Weaver says in the following Q&A addressing social media and memories.
Q: Is it true that posting pictures to Facebook or Instagram might make our memories for those events worse?
A: A fascinating study by Diana Tamir (assistant professor of psychology at Princeton) and her colleagues suggests that might be true. Sharing personal experiences on social media might impair precisely those events we are trying to preserve.
Note: Tamir's study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology — “Media usage diminishes memory for experiences” — found that people who post images quickly remember less about the about the actual experience than those who hold off on sharing them.
Q: Why is that so?
A: It’s probably a combination of things. Focusing on taking the picture or writing the tweet takes attention away from the event itself. In addition, our belief that we can always just look at the picture to remind us means we likely don’t spend as much time thinking about the event we just experienced. And thinking about important events is critical to our ability to remember them later.
Q: Should people look first and enjoy sensations before taking their photos?
A: Yes. Personal photographs function as “retrieval cues” for us — they help us to remember experiences that we’ve had. But they have very little intrinsic value. The photograph’s value is to help us remember what we felt and experienced, not just what we saw. That’s why looking at other people’s pictures isn’t all that enjoyable. They have personal significance only to those who experienced the event.
Q: Are people too quick to take selfies and then run along to the next thing?
A: Probably, yes. The picture should enhance your ability to remember the experience, not to serve as a substitute for the experience.
Q: So how should we “process” the experience first before we document it on social media?
A: Pay attention to how the experience made you feel. What was unique or distinctive? Smells, touches, sights, emotions . . . those are the experiences we want to remember, and they are also the kinds of things most likely to fade from memory. Then take a photograph that will help you recall those personal details. It’s probably not a photograph of us jumping up while in front of the Tower of London.
Q: Does that mean that our memories will become like photographs? That they will remain vivid and detailed?
A: No, our memories don’t work like that. We don’t store memories in the same way a computer or phone stores a picture or a video. We remember bits and pieces of events, and then reconstruct our memories every time we retrieve a memory. Photos don’t store things like emotions, which is why it is important for us to attend to those during the event itself.
Q: So we don’t have to give up posting?
A.: Not at all. In many respects, Facebook is no different from photo albums of 30 years ago, or journals from 100 years ago. They serve to help us remember what we are otherwise likely to forget — important personal experiences. But they don’t substitute for the experience. When used like this, Facebook or Instagram can be a wonderful tool. Looking at a post from three years ago should bring a smile to your face, maybe a tear to your eye, because it brings back emotions you experienced in the past.
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