Blended Memory

Tim Fawns is a Fellow in Clinical Education and Deputy Programme Director of the MSc Clinical Education at Edinburgh Medical School at the University of Edinburgh. He received his PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 2017, and his primary research interests are memory, digital technology and education. In this post, he discusses themes from his recent paper "Blended memory: A framework for understanding distributed autobiographical remembering with photography" in Memory Studies.


Recording live music on mobile phones, posting photos of breakfast on social media, taking the same photo six times when a friend with a better camera has already taken it... these are some of the many idiosyncratic photography practices I have encountered during my research into memory and photography, alongside traditional examples of family and holiday pictures.

From reading literature from cultural studies, media studies, and human computer interaction, followed by lots of informal conversations and, finally, a series of research interviews, it became clear to me that photography is an eccentric enterprise, and its relationship to how we remember our lives is highly complex. My research paints a very different picture from many cognitive psychology studies, where participants are, for example, shown a photograph (often, one that they have not taken themselves) and asked to recall something specific (e.g. a story or an event or a detail).

Controlled studies are often aimed at understanding the underlying mechanisms of memory or the effects of an intervention (e.g. using a photograph as a cue) on recall or recognition. I came to realise that photographs are not simply cues, and remembering with photography is not just looking at a photograph and then remembering. Practices of photography (taking photos, looking at them, organising them, sharing them with others) and the meanings we associate with our pictures are an integral part of the process of remembering. 

For one thing, we may take many more photographs than we engage with afterwards, yet taking a photograph can change both the situation being photographed (for example, where those in the picture are aware of the camera) and the way we pay attention to it. When we do look at photographs, it matters whether we took them ourselves, and what else we have done with them – whether we’ve talked about them, put them in albums, or sent them to people. Our photography practices are, themselves, experiences that can be remembered and associated with the event that was photographed, and they can change the way we feel about the past.

In my paper "Blended memory: A framework for understanding distributed autobiographical remembering with photography", I drew on a distributed cognition perspective to consider how photography practices are implicated in what is remembered and how it is remembered. I analysed 21 interviews in which participants discussed their own photographs, producing narrative accounts that combined episodic and semantic memory with inferences and associations that were based not only on the content of the photos, but also on the experiences of related practices. Their understandings of these narratives were influenced by particular beliefs and preferences. 

For example, having taken a photograph could be seen as disruptive to the experience being remembered, depending on whether photography was seen as a legitimate part of experience. Given the highly contextual and idiosyncratic ways in which memory and photography are mutually shaping, I call for more ecologically valid studies, in which everyday photography practices are observed, to complement and extend the results produced by controlled studies into memory and photography. 

This opens up a vast area for psychological and interdisciplinary research. For example, might the apparent shift towards communication through images in social media have interesting implications for how extended families remember both shared and vicarious experiences? How do digital photo frames shape the conversation as they rotate through large collections of personal photographs? These are questions that should be of interest, not only to those working in Human Computer Interaction or Media Studies, but to psychologists and philosophers as well.

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