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The Proof Is in the Shooting: Photos Have a Positive Effect on the Brain

By Martha Michael

Photos and Your Brain

We have webcams on our computers, CCTVs in public parking lots, and phones in our pockets. Images are a way of life. Like every trending lifestyle choice, there are upsides and downsides. However, by looking at it from various angles you can find ways to lean into the benefits of photography.

Positive Effects of Photos for Seniors

Viewing photography can keep old folks mentally engaged, according to a report in the online research journal Frontiers about the impact of photo content on conversation quality between young people and seniors. Because of changes in family structures in Japan, a growing population of aging residents are experiencing unhealthy levels of social isolation that can lead to neurocognitive disorders. Researchers at the Kyoto Institute of Technology in Japan studied the use of an old photo library to incite dialogue between young people and seniors.

Functional neuroimaging shows activity in the visual cortex and medial temporal lobe when healthy individuals view memorable images. By recording the therapeutic effects of viewing photos with various content, studies show that engaging in reminiscence activities can offer:

  • Reduced symptoms of depression
  • Greater psychological stability
  • Greater ability to reassess life patterns
  • Stronger self-image
  • Improved relationships

In a study using reminiscence therapy, or RT, old photos were presented to a young person and an older person and their resulting conversation was analyzed for its fluency employing an emotional assessment scale. Seniors almost always reported the conversation as pleasing, but more so when presented with an image they wanted to talk about. They concluded that photo content has a strong effect on the pleasure of conversation for young people and there was a correlation between the young person’s interest in the photo content and how much pleasure the senior experienced in the conversation.

Photos and Memory

For both healthy individuals and those with a form of cognitive impairment, the images they remember best are indoor scenes depicting people and/or manmade objects. They are not, however, the most aesthetically interesting pictures. When researchers present images that are objectively more pleasing and interesting, memorability is high for healthy control groups but forgotten by those with impairments.

Another study used fMRI technology to measure changes in neuronal activity during reminiscence therapy sessions with patients who have major neurocognitive disorders. They found that conducting RT stimulated autobiographical memory whether they used old public photos or their personal pictures from the past.

For Alzheimer’s disease patients and their loved ones, there’s an ongoing challenge to slow down memory loss and maintain a connection for as long as possible. Visual images can aid in that process, and an article on has a list of ways to maximize the benefits of viewing photos to stimulate memory:

Create a personalized album - An individual with Alzheimer’s disease can become uncomfortable as less of the world seems familiar. A customized photo album can remind them of home and family.

Be sure photos are labeled clearly - Many seniors have loss of eyesight as well as memory issues, so be sure the pictures are large and descriptions are easy to understand.

Double down with photos and journals - Storytelling is an age-old form of cementing memories for families and cultures. If your loved one can do the journaling it’s ideal, but if you chronicle experiences for them, it’s still helpful for recollection.

Start scrapbooking - By helping a senior create scrapbooks you spark their memories while also making it easy to return and revisit the occasion.

Getting Behind the Camera

Now that most Americans have a phone with a capacity to capture thousands of images, nearly everyone knows what it’s like to point and shoot. An article by Photo Jeepers says that using a camera or your phone to practice photography can offer mental health benefits including:

Creativity - From choosing a location to framing the shot, you can creatively lock in memories while expressing yourself.

Exploration - When you try something new you reach outside your comfort zone. Whether you physically travel or become open to new experiences, the act of photographing various subjects and experiences will expand your horizons.

Connecting to nature - Some environments are best suited for mindfulness meditation or processing thoughts. Taking photo walks in forested areas or while strolling down the beach enables you to use photography as a conduit for shifts in emotion or changing your worldview.

Stress reduction - A hobby, such as photography, is a great go-to for escape and relaxation. By carving out time that doesn’t involve deadlines and meeting the expectations of others, you take a break from the stressors that erode your health.

Processing grief - One of the best ways to honor someone who has passed away or to remember the days when your kids were young is to look at photos from the past. Taking pictures will preserve your memories and help you say good-bye.

Overcoming social anxiety - Getting behind a camera is a good ice breaker. If you’re not the life of the party, you can be an active observer and make friends while you snap pictures.

Problems have also arisen in the age of smartphones because we have access to cameras at all times of the day and night. An article by NPR talks about the down side to excessive photo taking because sometimes it leads to missing the moment. An attentional disengagement occurs during important milestones such as birthdays and graduations when you concentrate on angles and lighting rather than the meaning of the experience.

Ironically, most people take pictures to cement the experience for the future, yet it can impede your ability to retain those memories, according to researchers. We sometimes take photos and don’t make the effort to remember, treating photography like an external drive.

"When people rely on technology to remember something for them, they're essentially outsourcing their memory," says Linda Henkel, a psychology professor at Fairfield University. "They know their camera is capturing that moment for them, so they don't pay full attention to it in a way that might help them remember."

It's a double-edged sword -- we disengage and offload the work of remembering when we take too many pictures, yet we’re also creating images that can help with memory care later. Everyone wants their senior moments to be memorable, which stands a greater chance when you have images to remind you of the past. In the present, changing the way you record memories can be a cause for celebration or a lesson in willpower depending on how you frame it.

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