Are Smartphones Keeping Us from Appreciating Art?

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According to recent estimates, by 2018, there will be 2.59 billion smartphone users on planet earth. That’s around a third of the world’s current population. Yet despite their ubiquity, what smartphones do to our brains over the long term remains murky.

There is, however, a rich discussion as to how the technology in our pockets is impacting our day-to-day lives. For instance: Should we bring our phones to a museum, especially if we’re looking to have a rewarding, meditative experience with a work of art?

There is very little direct research on this subject. A journal article published in April compiled and evaluated previous research on the connection between smartphones and cognition. The authors—Henry H. Wilmer, Lauren E. Sherman, and Dr. Jason M. Chein of Temple University—cited one 2013 study that took place in a museum which examined the impact of using point-and-shoot cameras on a museum tour.

Basically all smartphones today have cameras, so point-and-shoot cameras serve as a valid proxy for taking photos of art with a smartphone. For the aforementioned 2013 study, authored by Fairfield University psychology professor Dr. Linda A. Henkel, researchers took undergraduate students on a tour of the school’s Bellarmine Museum of Art (now called the Fairfield University Art Museum).

The students were asked to observe certain objects, photographing some and not photographing others. The next day the students were given a series of tests, including being presented with images of works from the tour, as well as images of works they had not seen. Researchers found that students had less memory of the objects they had photographed on the tour, including details like name and location in the museum, suggesting that taking photographs diminishes recall.

But there was a little twist: The study found that photography’s effect on memory can be mitigated if the photographer zooms in on specific details. When students engaged an artwork and took a photo of just a smaller piece of the object, rather than its entirety, they were able to remember the entire object better— suggesting, as Wilmer, Sherman, and Chien write in regards to Dr. Henkel’s study, that “the improvement was due to a more rich interaction with the object.”

There’s an obvious difference between point-and-shoot cameras and smartphones, though: The latter let us text our friends, surf the internet, and engage in endless distractions. A Wall Street Journal article published in October rounded up research that examined the connection between smartphones and cognition. None of the studies seemed to address the effect on looking at art specifically, but they did focus on skills crucial to processing art deeply: thinking and focus. And in this case, the findings aren’t promising. “As the brain grows dependent on the technology, the research suggests, the intellect weakens,” wrote author Nicholas Carr in the Wall Street Journal.

Click here to read the full article.