Thesis – Pictures Build Memories

on Nov 19, 2012 in Writing | 0 comments

Share On GoogleShare On FacebookShare On Twitter




The desire to remember past events has been a defining trait of the human race ever since its beginnings. However, the ability to remember events long gone has always been a struggle for mankind. The writer asserts that the reason we remember certain events in our history is not necessarily because of the significance of the events, but rather the fact that we have visible evidence which prompts the memory of those events. These visual cues can date as far back as ancient cave paintings, to drawings on papyrus, to renaissance murals, or even modern photography. The writer will show that having visual cues to remember events allows us to remember the event with greater clarity and fondness. Through modern neuroscience and the study of the human brain, science has proven that parts of the brain which store and develop memories benefit greatly when there is a picture associated with the event in question. This part of the brain, the hippocampus, depends on certain triggers to prompt memory return. Pictures provide one of the best resources for the brain to remember events. With this evidence, the writer suggests that we all must take more pictures of our day to day activities in order to more accurately remember our lives.




            When I was five years old, my family lived in Kentucky. In the small town where my family lived, fishing was the sport of choice. I remember fishing with my family, and never catching anything! After coming home from another disappointing fishing trip, my neighbor caught me in the driveway. He had seen my distress in the past, and saw that once again, I had not brought home any fish. Gently, he asked what was wrong. After telling him of my lack of fishing abilities, and expressing to him my profound desire to catch a fish, he suggested that I go fishing with him that afternoon. Later that day, he led me to his backyard, where he had a five gallon bucket full of fish he had caught earlier that day. The bucket was so full; there was probably more fish than water! Having no need for bait, I took my fishing pole in hand, and dipped it carefully into the water. After a couple minutes, I felt a tug on the line, signaling that I had caught something. Cautiously, I drew back my line, and on the hook was a shiny fish. I had caught my first fish, and I was so happy!

            I remember this event not because I had a picture perfect memory when I was five, but rather because of a picture my mother took of me holding my first fish. There I stood, proudly holding my fish on the line next to the five gallon bucket.

            In reality, I remember very few experiences I had when I was five years old. However, it seems that the memories I do have almost always have a picture associated with them. This phenomenon prompted a question: was my ability to remember enhanced at that moment I caught the fish because it was a great moment of significance in my life? Or was it rather that I had a picture to remind me about the event? It is my purpose today to help you understand the vital importance of documenting our lives through photography.

            Walt Disney once said of pictures, “Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.” (Wingert, 1999) I believe this to be true. No matter what culture, society, or demographic you fall into, pictures still speak the same to everyone. Whether you are rich or poor, speak Russian or English, we all feel the same emotions when we see a picture. Whatever your origin, when we see the picture of a man standing in front of a row of tanks in Tiananmen Square we see a symbol of courage. When we see a picture of Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out, we laugh at his quirky attitude. A picture from the moon looking down on our tiny planet earth has the ability to communicate the same feeling to every one of its billions of inhabitants. With such a universally understood method of communication available to us, we must take more pictures which can speak what words cannot.

Ever since the beginning of time, we have been drawing in the sand, carving into walls, painting on canvases, and now taking pictures; All in an attempt to cherish up those memories we hold dear to us. The question which remains is what are those most cherished memories?

In a recent study on facebook (Luke, 2011), participants were asked what their most cherished memories were. The following is a list of the top six responses, in order of votes received: Weddings, College, Family Vacations, Adventures, Historic Events, and Sports Plays. What is it about these events that cause us to remember them? I propose that the reason we remember these events is not because of the significance of the events, but rather because during all these events, someone is there taking pictures.

Why then, do pictures prompt a clearer and more accurate memory of an event? Human Memory, the Basics, describes how memory works. “The hippocampus is a major component of the brains of humans and other mammals. It belongs to the limbic system and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory.” (Martinez, 2010)  The hippocampus serves as a mechanism which stores and converts your memories into either long term, or short term memories. Within the hippocampus is what is called hippocampal neurons. These neurons have the option when you internalize something to fire off and be converted into either CA2 or CA3 neurons.  CA2 neurons are your short term memories, while CA3 are your long term memories. Those memories which are converted to CA3 are stored for a much longer time, and available for recall almost instantly within the brain.

In order to study the effects of pictures on the conversion method of hippocampal neurons, the University of Irvine studied the brainwaves of rats. In this study rats were run through two different types of mazes. The format of the two mazes were identical except for one defining feature. The first maze was made with plane white walls, while the second maze displayed images on all the intersections of the maze. The rats were sent through the maze, and their brainwaves were studied afterwards. The rats that went through the plain white maze showed that 15% of their neurons were being converted to CA3, long term memories. However, the rats that went through the maze with the pictures showed that over 90% of their neurons were being converted to CA3. These rats were making long term memories each time they went through the maze. It should be no surprise then, that after a while, the rats going through the second maze were able to go through the entirety of the puzzle flawlessly. Pictures build memories.

In a university report on the study it was stated that, “Single events account for many of our most vivid memories — a marriage proposal, a wedding toast, a baby’s birth. Until a recent UC Irvine discovery… in a study with rats, neuroscientist John Guzowski and colleagues found that a single brief experience was as effective at activating neurons and genes associated with memory as more repetitive activities.” (Fitzenberger, 2009) Essentially, that marriage proposal’s effect on the brain through the conversion of the neurons within the mind can be matched if one repeatedly looks at a picture of a less significant event. Any event in our life can be as memorable as our wedding day, if only we take pictures of those events!

After seeing these results, MIT wanted to know whether this outcome could be duplicated with humans. While I am sure they considered concept of running multiple subjects through mazes over and over again, they opted for a different type of test. In this study, they took 2000 people, and showed them a series of images every second for 5.5 hours. These images displayed completely different images like a bus, a stuffed animal, and an apple. It also displayed similar images, like a lunchbox with a bread loaf either inside the box, or just outside of it. The subjects were asked to examine these images as they flew by every second, and to complete two objectives: Clap when they saw an image that repeated itself, and to remember every image, because a test would be given on their memory of the images after the 5.5 hour viewing session. [1] The results were groundbreaking, as the test subjects were able to remember about 90% of the images they saw.

In a commentary about the study, Timothy F. Brady, one of the developers of the experiment stated, “One of the major lessons of memory research has been that human memory is fallible, imprecise, and subject to interference. Thus, although observers can remember thousands of images, it is widely assumed that these memories lack detail. Contrary to this assumption, here we show that long-term memory is capable of storing a massive number of objects with details from the image.” (Brady, Konkle, Alvarez, Oliva, 2008) Not only were the test subjects able to remember the images they saw, but they remembered them with clarity, showing that the brain has a much larger and detailed storage capacity than ever thought possible.  Indeed, with the aid of a picture, one is able to remember not only the event, but who was there, what was said, what the weather was like, the context of the moment, and many more details often forgotten without visual cues.

This conclusion was challenged by a man named Rubens Wais. In his article in the Journal of Neuroscience he asserts that,

It is not known whether exposure to irrelevant environmental stimuli impairs our ability to accurately retrieve long-term memories. We hypothesized that visual processing of irrelevant visual information would interfere with mental visualization engaged during recall of the details of a prior experience, despite goals to direct full attention to the retrieval task. (Wais, 2010)

In essence, he contends that whether you have an image or not, your ability to recall an event with accuracy depends solely on the environment you are in when you are trying to remember said event. He theorizes that a distracting environment will prevent any accurate recall of the event, regardless of whether you have a picture or not.

For his study, twenty-nine students (as opposed to 2000), were seated in a room and shown images every second for five minutes. Afterwards, they were given a test on what the images displayed. The images and questions were simple, “did you see a couch, or a wishbone?” The test subjects were asked these questions in different environments, some with their eyes shut, and others when distractions, such as music or a movie playing. His findings, based on twenty nine students of the same university, suggest that the brain has no ability to recall events with accuracy if the environment is not conducive of such retrieval.

Interestingly enough, the study prompted many commentaries, as such from one Dr. Kwok, senior research editor at the University of South Carolina,

I have a reservation about to what extent the findings are applicable to the nature of episodic memory. While the “what”, “where” and “when” components are the three building blocks of episodic memory, only the “what” element was tapped into by the author. (Kwok, 2010)

 Kwok explains that memory involves much more than a “what did you see?” element. When one looks at a picture, he/she pictures the scene, and visualizes who was there, what was in it, and what it was like. In Wais’ study, he neglects to account for these factors, basing his conclusion off of a simple study performed for five minutes. Clearly, memory is much more than a “is this your card?” magic trick. It is an experience, a moment, a treasure.

When Jason Lucas, a student at BYU-Idaho was asked when in his life he took the most pictures he promptly responded, “On my mission!” When asked why he answered with almost no hesitation he said, “Because I knew if I took a picture of something, I would be able to look back and remember what I was doing on my mission. My parents bought me a camera before I left, and I probably have more pictures of those two years than I do of my entire life!” It is my personal opinion that almost every missionary carries a camera, and almost every missionary takes pictures at the most random times.

On my mission I had a companion named Elder Bradshaw. We were serving in a suburb of Seattle called Auburn, in Washington. It was over 105 degrees that summer day, and we were knocking on the doors of a duplex neighborhood in which every duplex featured a full white paneled wall on the front. This resulted in even higher brightness levels and temperatures on each doorstep as the sun’s rays beat down upon the paneling, and reflected back onto our bodies. At every door, we had to squint as if we were looking directly at the sun itself! After one such door, nobody answered, and I turned to leave. Noticing Elder Bradshaw was not at my side, I turned around to see him still standing there, staring at the door, with a look rigid determination. I asked him, “Elder Bradshaw… what are you doing?” Without even turning to respond he called back, “Elder Luke… come back and see how long you can stare at this door with me!” Laughing, I did not follow his request, but instead pulled out my camera, and took a picture. [2]

John Berger, a famous photographer once said, “Photographs are there to remind us of what we forget.” (Berger, 1998) I can almost guarantee that if I hadn’t taken a picture I might have remembered that event for a couple of years; but because I took that picture, I can remember it for a lifetime. Just like rats in the maze, every time I see the image more CA3 neurons are being fired off, creating a longer lasting, and more permanent memory. Indeed, having that image means that I will be able to remember that single event with as much clarity as my wedding day, all because of the simple act of taking out my camera, and snapping a picture.

However, this attitude of taking a picture during what is assumed to be insignificant events is mostly lost on the general population today. “I only take pictures for shows, parties, gatherings or something like that,” Trevor Greene, a student at BYU-Idaho stated, “I would never think to stop and take a picture of the time I met the guy who unicycles around campus.” Nobody thinks to take pictures of the small things. It is not being technically unable to take a picture at the moment that is hindering society as a whole either. In a survey by Wirefly.com, “96.3% of adult cell phone owners report that they have a cell phone with a camera.” (Wirefly, 2008) However, that camera is widely unused. In a study done on BYU-Idaho campus, out of 100 students surveyed, only 43% stated they took pictures more than once a month. Essentially, around half of our student body is taking one picture a month… twelve pictures a year. If pictures build memories, if images help us remember past events with as much clarity as our wedding day, we must use the technology we all carry in our pockets, and take pictures.  Twelve memories a year is not enough. Interestingly, when asked about whether they enjoyed looking at the pictures they had on their phones, 100% stated “Always.”

Ansel Adams, a world renowned photographer known for his pioneering of landscape photography once said, “Sometimes I get to places just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter.”[3] We must click that shutter. If he didn’t click the shutter, we would not know the beauty of the Teton Mountains. If Stuart Franklin did not click the shutter, we would not know the courage of the “tank man” of Tiananmen square. If I did not click the shutter with Elder Bradshaw, I wouldn’t have that wonderful memory… but I had a camera on me, I clicked the shutter, and I will have that memory forever.

Ever since the beginning of time we as human beings have had some desire to treasure up and keep those memories we cherish most. We are the only creatures on this earth that do that. No other animal draws on the sand, paints on the wall, or takes pictures. This leads me to believe that it has something to do with our soul. So honor your soul. Carry a camera, take pictures, and treasure your memories.





Berger, J. (1998). Photocopies. Ruben, CA: Vintage.


Brady, T. F., Konkle, T., Alvarez, G. A. and Oliva, A. (2008). Visual long-term memory has a          massive storage capacity for object details. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 105 (38), 14325-14329.

A research study which effectively shows that human memory “is capable of storing a massive number of objects with details from the image.”


Fitzenberger, J. (2009) Committing single events to memory. University of California Irvine. Retrieved from http://www.uci.edu/features/2009/05/feature_singleeventmemory_090526.php.

An article written about MIT’s findings about single event memory functions. Helped me understand the findings on the two articles below, and provided a basic summery of the work.


Kwok, S. C. (2010). Merely remembering “what” is not enough. Neuroimaging Laboratory Santa Lucia Foundation Via Ardeatina. Retrieved from http://www.jneurosci.org/content/30/25/8541.short/reply#jneuro_el_64503

A very interesting response to Wais’s article “Neural mechanisms underlying the impact of visual distraction on retrieval of long-term memory,” as listed below. Kwok asserts his reservations about the articles findings, “While the “what”, “where” and “when” components are the three building blocks of episodic memory, only the “what” element was tapped into by the authors.” He goes on to describe multiple points in which he disagrees with the original findings.


Luke, C. (2011). What are your most cherished memories. Retrieved from http://www.facebook.com/?sk=questions&ap=1

A study performed by the author on facebook in an attempt to identify society’s most cherished memoires.


Martinez, M. E. (2010). Human memory the basics. Phi Delta Kappan. (8):62-65.

Basic work describing human memory. Helped me unfold the scientific terms other articles referred to.


Neufeld, G. (2011). Pixelperfect images. Retrieved from http://www.pixelperfectimages.ifp3.com/

A website which quotes Ansel Adams.


Wais, P. E., Rubens, M. T., Boccanfuso, J., & Gazzaley, A. (2010) Neural mechanisms underlying the impact of visual distraction on retrieval of long-term memory. The Journal of Neuroscience. 30(25): 8541-8550.

Provides an opposing viewpoint to my thesis statement. Attempts to show that “visual processing of irrelevant visual information would interfere with mental visualization engaged during recall of the details of a prior experience, despite goals to direct full attention to the retrieval task.” This effectively means that if enough distracting things are happening during an event you are trying to remember, you will not be able to accurately recall the details of your memory.


Wingert, C. (1999). Walt Disney quotes general quotations. Retrieved from             http://www.justdisney.com/walt_disney/quotes/

A website devoted to quotations of Walt Disney.


Wirefly. (2008). Cell phones are growing as camera of choice. Retrieved from http://www.wirefly.com/learn/company_news/cell-phones-are-growing-as-camera-of-choice-wirefly-survey-shows/

A consumer study performed by Wirefly.com a cell phone carrier on the habits of cell phone and camera phone use.






[1] Note: One can participate in a mini version of this test by visiting the studies website at p://cvcl.mit.edu/MM/demos.html

[2] This picture may be viewed here: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=3694709&id=624601540

Leave a Reply