If you've ever found yourself standing behind a 6'5" serial-Instagrammer at a concert, here's some good news: While it may not get him to put the camera down, science indicates that guy is getting less out of the experience than you. In a paper published last December in Psychological Science, Fairfield University psychologist Dr. Linda Henkel cites two studies that suggest photographing something with your cellphone has what she calls a "photo-taking impairment effect" on memory. The implication is simple: People who photograph concerts remember them less than people who don't.
That's something that a lot of artists recognize intuitively. When late-'90s indie godhead Jeff Mangum officially reunited Neutral Milk Hotel last year, he did so with a caveat: a strict no-photo, no-video policy that extends as far as concert Jumbotrons — be it in an arena, mega-fest or stadium. She & Him, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Savages have enforced their own bans using no-photos signs at venues. Prince has enlisted security to enforce his ban. In 2012, The All-American Rejects singer and all-around garbage person Tyson Ritter smashed a fan's iPad on-stage. And last year, Misfits founder Glenn Danzig spotted a fan filming a no-photo Danzig show and suggested somebody in the crowd "punch that fucking asshole."
But it turns out these tirades are in fans' interests. In her first experiment, Henkel sent a group of students through Fairfield's Bellarmine Museum of Art and instructed them to photograph certain objects on display. Tested a day later, subjects were able to recall details and locations of objects they didn't photograph more accurately than ones they did. Interestingly, Henkel's second experiment found that the effect was negated when subjects zoomed in on one detail of an object — suggesting that it really is the way we use camera phones warping our memories rather than the technology itself.
Henkel thinks we use them as a means to sidestep focus, albeit subconsciously. "When we rely on an external memory aid, [we] mentally count on the camera to remember for [us]," she told NPR in May. "As soon as you hit click on that camera, it's as if you've outsourced your memory." It's similar to the direct-forgetting effect that keeps us from remembering information we know we can Google later.
And as for those who do snap photos to return to them later — even at the expense of direct mental attendance — Henkel says images don't capture what's most important: the feeling. "The sheer volume and lack of organization of digital photos for personal memories discourages many people from accessing and reminiscing about them," Henkel told the Association of Psychological Science (which publishes Psychological Science). "In order to remember, we have to access and interact with the photos, rather than just amass them." After all, will a grainy iPhone photo replicate the moment a band comes back on stage for an encore?
This isn't to say cell phones can't enhance concerts too. At Pitchfork, the night after Mangum and company played to a cell-free audience of 18,000, Kendrick Lamar enlisted the very same group of people to light up their phones during "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst." The effect was predictably stunning.
Image Credit: Matt Pollock
That's a photo I took of the whole thing — a neat shot of an even neater moment. But to state the obvious, it's nothing like the concert was in person. What's worse, in snapping the photo, I catalyzed the direct-forgetting effect Henkel describes: When I sat down to write this post, I had to text a friend to recall which song this happened during. Jeff Tweedy summarized the conundrum best at a concert a few years back: "You're forfeiting your memories for an imperfect medium that will not replace your real life — or your memories. You're letting go of something that no one else can have."