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How to Stay in the Moment: Take a Picture

How to Stay in the Moment: Take a Picture
From Wired - August 13, 2017

The other weekend, I found myself at a beach on the outskirts of New York City during sunset. The sky was spectacular, filled with the neon pinks, oranges, and purples that come after a day of rain. As if on cue, the two friends I was with fished their smartphones from their pockets and snapped a photo. My phone was already out. All around us, people were holding their screens up to the sky to document the moment, as if capturing it on camera would somehow make the colors more vivid.

As the sun went down, I felt a familiar pang of guilt. It was the same sense of uneasiness I feel after falling down an Instagram rabbit hole or scrolling through Twitter when I first wake up in the morningthe feeling that maybe I just spent my time unwisely. I could have been down on the sand with my feet in the surf or drinking a beer with my friends or doing any number of cliched things a person does during a sunset on the beach, but I was up on the boardwalk looking through my viewfinder.

Maybe its because cameras are with us all the time now, or maybe its because social media ruins everything, but somewhere along the way weve been conditioned to believe that taking photos is the opposite of living in the moment. That snapping a pic is like pulling blinders over your eyes and opting out of the experience. Despite my momentary anxiety, I dont actually believe thats true. And neither does science. Taking pictures, it turns out, can have all sorts of benefits, so long as youre taking them for the right reasons.

In the last few years, psychologists have started looking into how our ever-present smartphone cameras impact the way we recall experiences. The general assumption is that smartphonesand by proxy their cameras are bad for our memory and our happiness. But that isnt always the case. People feel very strongly that when they take photos its taking them out of the moment, says Alixandra Barasch, a researcher at NYU who studies the effects of taking photos. Yet after years of running studies, we kept on finding over and over again that there were all of these positive aspects of photo-taking, as well.

Snapping photos, Barasch and her colleagues explain in a series of recent papers, can both enhance enjoyment and improve memory of certain experiences (it can also reduce auditory recall). The simplest explanation is that when people take photos of things theyre interested in, they tend to focus on those things more intently. This kind of directed attention can lead people to deeper engagement with their surrounding and ultimately create more sustaining memories. When youre searching the visual field and trying to decide what to photograph, that volitional process of trying to capture a moment actually draws you into experiences, Barasch says.

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