A Look At Life: Selfies

22nd August 2014

In a sea of selfies are we losing our memories?

Claire Moulds

A couple of months ago, I went to Rome for the first time, and it was stunning. With all that history, wonderful architecture and art to relish, you might wonder what my standout memory of the trip is. Visiting the Colosseum? Seeing the Pope?


The thing that sticks in my mind the most is the constant sea of smartphones and iPads that surrounded us wherever we went.

Being a tourist these days is less about drinking in the sights, sounds and smells of a new environment and more about getting that first snap or video clip taken and uploaded as fast as your phone service or internet provider allows, followed by a steady stream of pictorial updates. A historical monument is no longer something to look at and learn about but merely a backdrop to a million selfies. Worse still is the trend for filming everything on an iPad with whole groups of tourists seemingly viewing an entire city through a screen, with no real connection to what they are recording.

Maybe I’m showing my age but why video something for viewing later when you can experience it in the flesh there and then? And, if all you want to take away from a trip is a series of recordings, why bother with getting on a plane at all? After all, pop ‘Rome tourist video’ into Google and you can watch any number without ever having to leave the comfort of your own home.

The recent ‘Grand Départ’ of the Tour de France from Yorkshire again captured our obsession – and, at times, stupidity – when it comes to achieving the perfect shot. Over and over again spectators put themselves, and the riders, in danger by lurching out into the road to get a close up while others were so busy watching the leaders approaching through their viewfinder that they didn’t even realise they were in their path until they were unceremoniously pushed out of the way.

By appointing ourselves photographer/videographer we are taking ourselves out of, rather than living in, the moment. This was fine a decade ago when we were still selective about what we captured for posterity but now that both photos and videos have become a commodity product we’re becoming disconnected from our own lives and viewing everything as a third party.

And it’s not just the moment we’re in that’s getting lost, we’re also in the process failing to lay down precious memories that we can then look back on later in life.

A recent study by Fairfield University Psychologist Linda Henkel showed that when students visited a museum they recalled less about those exhibits they photographed than those that they simply observed, proving that when we capture something on film we don’t feel the need to commit vital details to memory.

Worryingly, a 2013 survey of 18,000 individuals by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that 14% of those aged 18 to 39 had issues with their memory – a much higher number than expected – before citing technology as a key factor in the reduction of young people’s ability to focus and remember. Our reliance on the latest gadgets is therefore having a significantly adverse impact on our brain’s ability to function optimally.

After all who hasn’t, instead of plumbing the depths of their memory for a fact or figure, just grabbed their smartphone to Google the answer? That’s all very well when you want to know who won the last World Cup but it’s not much use when you’re trying to recall every detail of the first date you had with your new fiancé. Sure, a selfie can remind you what you wore that night and a series of text messages you dashed off to your best friend over the course of the evening will reveal the highs and lows of your conversation – ‘he hates dogs, should I end it now?’ – but how much of the rest of the night can you actually remember when you only have your own recollections to draw on?

For memories that will truly last a lifetime we therefore need to experience life through our own eyes, not through a lens, and stop relying on our cameras, phones and tablets to document our existence.

And, if you need any further proof, just look to my 100-year-old neighbour who can pretty much describe where he was, what he was doing and who he was with on any given day of his life without any form of aide-memoire. Now, that’s the type of brain power we should all be aspiring to…

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