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So many angles of our lives are now captured in photographs. People literally upload billions of photos onto social media sites every day. And even if you aren’t snapping photos of your own life, it’s easy to go on Flickr and find someone else’s photos of a nearly identical experience – that vista at Disneyland or Venice, sandy toes at the beach, the serene view out the airplane window, a yummy-looking breakfast.

Given all this photo-taking, it's strange that social scientists haven’t really yet looked at how the act of taking photographs affects our experiences of things. Many people seem to believe that taking photos can distract from the moment and ruin our experience of it. And some previous studies have shown that trying to do two enjoyable things at the same time – like using Facebook while you’re trying to watch TV  – reduces your enjoyment of the experience.

But others people, especially dedicated photographers, might feel differently. Taking photos isn’t necessarily always a distraction – often it actually increases your engagement with the moment.

A new paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology supports this second view. It suggests that the act of taking a photograph often improves people’s experiences, by focusing their attention on the aspects of the moment most worth capturing.

Researchers from the University of Southern California, Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania carried out nine experiments in both the lab and the field involving more than 2,000 people to examine the various ways that snapping photographs affects how people enjoy different experiences. They found that taking photographs enhanced people’s enjoyment of pleasant experiences in a variety of different contexts, like a bus tour, visiting a museum or even eating lunch. People who took photos reported being more engaged in almost every activity – suggesting that the act of photographing an experience helped draw them into it.

This principle didn’t hold in some situations. When people were already fully engaged in an activity – for example, when taking part in an arts and craft project – adding photographs to the mix didn’t increase their enjoyment. People were also put off when photography somehow interfered with the experience, for example when they had to handle bulky or unwieldy camera equipment, or delete photos or choose an Instagram filter while on the go.

But in cases where people were just observing something – a bus tour, for example – those who took photographs reported having a more positive experience. (The experimenters took their measurements before people were allowed to look at the photos they took, so this doesn’t even capture the potential positive benefits from looking back at old photos.)

The researchers also found that photographing a negative experience made it worse. In one case, a group of study subjects on a virtual safari watched lions attack a water buffalo. Those who snapped photographs of the attack reported even more negative feelings than those who just watched.

The papers suggests that the benefits the researchers saw weren’t necessarily tied to photography, but more how photography forces people to notice their surroundings. The act of framing and taking a photograph helps to focus our attention on the aspect of the experience most worth capturing and remembering – a friend’s expression, or the way the light hits a landscape. In one study, the researchers tracked the eye movements of people visiting a museum, and found that those taking photographs looked longer and more frequently at the art.

And if you focus on these details, you don’t necessarily need the camera, the paper suggests. Interestingly, the researchers found that people also reported higher levels of enjoyment after taking “mental” snapshots of an experience.

“It is not the mechanics of taking photos but rather the mental process of taking photos that leads to greater engagement,” they write.

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