Episode 13

13. Building a 'second brain' with photography

We take photos to document life events; we post memorable moments to social media, and so on. But what about the more mundane days of our lives? Photography can help you remember those too.

Show Notes


We generally want to remember important moments in our lives. We take photos to document life events; we post memorable moments to social media, and so on. But what about the more mundane days of our lives? Photography can help you remember those too.

Hello and welcome to Photo 365. My name is Andrew Haworth, and I’m a media producer and occasional educator. A goal of this show is to keep you motivated on photography projects. In some of the earlier episodes, I mentioned some tips that helped me when I started a photo-a-day project. Today, I’d like to talk about one of the unintended side-effects of shooting daily, and perhaps this will give you a push to stay motivated in your photographic endeavors.

And just a quick caveat, I’ll be talking about memory on this show, and because we all process information in different ways, your experiences may not line up with mine. I’m going to cite a few studies, but for the most part, I’ll be speaking from my personal experience.

So, let’s assume you’re shooting photos almost every day. There are several things that will naturally happen: One, you’ll end up with a lot of images, which potentially expands your portfolio, two, you’re hopefully honing your photographic eye.

In my case, one of the unexpected and most gratifying consequences of taking photos daily was that it essentially gave me the ability to remember many more details from the days I created images. I can remember the weather on those days, I can recall what I had for lunch, interactions I had at work, my state of mind, and so on. I can pick any photo from my series and recall some of these facts.

Now, I don’t have a remarkable memory. I certainly don’t have an eidetic, or photographic, memory. I struggle to remember little things like chores, people’s names, tasks I need to complete at work, and a host of other short-term applications. But as a photographer, I’ve discovered that if I’ve ever taken a photo of someone, I can often remember their face, especially if it was something I shot for a news story or magazine article.

June 25, 2018 (Andrew Haworth)

Here’s an example. A few months back I noticed a guy in a local restaurant who looked vaguely familiar -- keep in mind, everyone was wearing Covid masks -- so it took me a moment to recall where I knew him from. I finally sorted it out, and when he walked by me, I casually asked him if he played drums. He looked confused, and said he was a bass player. But then said he did know how to play drums. I asked him if he’d ever acted in a student film about 15 years prior. Again, the look of confusion, but then he admitted he had.

It turns out this gentleman had played a role in a project I’d worked on when I was in graduate school. In the film, he played the character of a drummer in a garage band. And because I’d stared at this guy through a video camera viewfinder for a few days, and later during the editing process, I’d built some memory pathways.

As we chatted, a lot of memories came rushing back: Dialog from the student film, some of the people who were involved, and in particular, one piece of very specific advice he gave me when it came to playing drums. I won’t repeat it here, but it involved the process of, and I quote, “rocking out” with a certain piece of your anatomy out. You can fill in the rest!

When I parroted this expression back to him we both had a laugh. We exchanged emails and I sent him a digital copy of the student film, which he’d never actually seen.

Afterwards, I was struck by how much this interaction echoed my experience with shooting a photo every day, and how I was able to have above average recall of those days, simply by looking at the images I captured. Again, I struggle to recall names, but if I’ve ever photographed someone or something, I'll probably remember it.

It’s just my theory, but I think this type of recall is similar to the process of note-taking. A common note-taking axiom says if we write something down, we’re more likely to remember it.

Let’s say you’re studying a textbook and you’re highlighting important passages. Do you actually remember those passages when you’ve finished the book? I don’t. However, if I highlight a passage, then transcribe that information into a notebook or into a text editor, I’m a lot more likely to remember it.

The same process happens with photography. If you JUST shoot photos, you won’t develop the deep memory connections I’m talking about. You have to interact with that image in some way -- whether it’s editing the image and posting it somewhere, or better yet, writing about that image. For instance, posting it in a gallery and writing a caption, or a brief summary of how and why you created the image. If the camera is a highlighter, then editing and captioning is akin to writing down a thought in your notes.

Essentially, you can’t just capture images to create memories. You have to work with them. Now, I’m not saying you can’t look back at an image and have a certain memory of it. But I’m offering that you will form deeper memories with an image if you take the time to properly note it.

How many people do you know who shoot hundreds or thousands of images on their phone, and never do anything with those images? Have you ever looked back at your camera roll and wondered why you shot a certain image, or maybe you had to look at the metadata just to recall where the photo was taken. It happens to me a lot -- again, I don’t have a good memory -- unless I’ve gone beyond the act of simply pressing the shutter.

I like to use photography to form what some note-taking gurus refer to as their “second brain.”

By the way, have you noticed there are SO many note-taking applications available to us nowadays? From old standards like Evernote and Google Keep, to new hot apps like Roam Research, Mem, and Notion. And there are the “analog” methods, pen and paper, bullet journals, day planners and so on. I’ve always been partial to a nice fountain pen and a Field Notes journal.

May 5, 2018 (Andrew Haworth)

If it makes any difference, I started writing this script in Mem, then transitioned to Obsidian. These are apps that go beyond simple note-taking. They are based on a card-and-box note system called a “zettelkasten,” German for “slip box.” The idea here is that notes can be filed and organized using a method that links information together in a meaningful way. This is an important concept in what’s known as “personal knowledge management,” or the “second brain.”

I’m not an expert in all this, but I stumbled upon it last year through the musings of tech guru Kevin Rose, who was at the time, an advocate of Roam. I started using the Roam system to keep notes, and I realized that my own 365 project was something of a memory box that, at least for me, documented 2017 to 2018 in a unique way. When I look back at this project, mundane memories of each day come rushing back like a stream.

Basically, it’s a visual diary. If you’ve ever done a regular photo blog, you’ve probably had a similar experience. It’s hard to describe, but incredibly fulfilling, and worth trying.

While writing this episode I scrolled quickly through a Google Photos gallery of my entire photo-a-day project and landed some some images at random, just to see what I could recall from those days.

  • June 25, 2018: The image is of a guy asleep in a chair on a sidewalk. I know this was on a Monday on Saluda Avenue, in the Five Points district of Columbia. I snapped this image moments before entering a coffee shop nearby, where I was having a preliminary interview with the gentleman who would become my boss. I drank plain coffee, Guatemalan, and my boss and I sat outside. I recall our meeting ran short because he was meeting someone else that same day, a friend of his from his church and F3 group. This photo was also notable because just five days later, I'd complete the photo-a-day project.
  • May 5, 2018: The image is from a hike at Caesars Head in the South Carolina Upstate. The hike that day was difficult, as I opted for the long route. I recall being frustrated by some kids that kept entering the frame as I tried to shoot Raven Cliff Falls from afar. I stocked up on energy bars and drinks at a gas station just after getting off the toll road. I was wearing an orange-dialed Seiko watch that day and hiking with a grey backpack. There was a threat of rain all day long. Afterwards, I met my friend Roy for beers at 13 Stripes Brewery near Taylors, SC, and was fascinated by a rusty old VW Beetle in the parking lot.
  • October 20, 2017: This was a Friday afternoon. The image is of some telephone wires near downtown Columbia. I shot this from a location near the USC baseball stadium while I was accompanying a four-person GIS team from Richland County. We were shooting drone footage of the city that day and this was our final launch location.

And I could go on and on. Note, I wasn't talking about the content of the actual photo so much in each case, as I was the mundane circumstances surrounding the capture of the image. Now, if all this sounds pretty benign, you wouldn't be wrong. But I can't think of anything else I've done that enables this type of recall, that just transports me to a time, place and mood so specifically.

I promised I’d cite some scientific evidence, and I’ll link to these in the show notes. A few years back participants in a memory study noted in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology were challenged to explore a historic building. Some participants were encouraged to take photos of the building with a mobile device, while the others were simply told to observe.

A week later the participants were given a pop quiz and asked details about the building. It turns out the folks who took photos actually remembered LESS about the building. The scientists who conducted the study theorized the cell phone is an instrument of distraction, which in turn, leads to lapses in memory. This at least confirms my suspicion that simply the act of photography doesn’t necessarily lead to enhanced memories.

Now, where I think the study would have been more intriguing, is if the participants who took photos were then asked to repurpose the images in some way: Write about them, post them somewhere, or learn something deeper about the subject. I contend if they’d done that, the photographers would have had a higher rate of recall.

In another study, this time at Fairfield University, the same so-called “photo-taking-impairment-effect” was also noted in testing. But researchers adjusted the test and asked the photographers to zoom in on specific objects before shooting their images. Another team were asked to take selfies inside the museum. Both groups of participants developed strong memories from the experience.

The study theorized, the only kind of photo, then, which does not impair your memory is the one that forces you to pay attention and, in effect, “be in the moment.” Or as I think of it, interacting with your images.

Memory experts offer up some practical tips when trying to learn: Put information to use, learn in “packets” of data -- smaller chunks that are easier to deal with. They also suggest sharing information with others. The interaction and resulting feedback are both shown to help you recall memories later.

October 20, 2017 (Andrew Haworth)

I think you can see parallels there with the photographic process. Photos themselves are “packets” of sorts, and putting your work out there, whether it’s on a personal website, Instagram or in a physical gallery, is an example of sharing.

Put the information in your images to use, and enjoy looking back at them a year, or five years later, but with those deep, connected memories powering your second brain. I think you’ll really enjoy it.

I’m going to close with a quote from Sontag. As I mentioned in an earlier episode, her collection of essays titled On Photography is essential reading for any photographer.

She says: “Photographs are a way of imprisoning reality ... One can’t possess reality, one can possess images -- one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”