It’s impossible now to get through a day without seeing a photograph of some sort. Every minute, 208,300 photos are uploaded to Facebook alone. In a recent presentation, Yahoo! predicted that if current trends continue, we will take about 880 billion photos in the year 2014. All of these photographs can add up to a lot of visual stimulation. This left us wondering – why do we take so many photographs, and why do we intentionally view so many? There are the obvious reasons: the proliferation of cameras, especially since the advent of smartphones; the fact that photos tell stories, convey meaning, and capture moments we’d like to remember; not to mention it’s just plain fun to take photos. But we’d like to take a look at some of the things going on under the surface.
A study called “13 Reasons Why your Brain Craves Infographics“, conducted by NeoMam Studios, reports that we’re “visually wired” – almost 50% of our brain is involved in visual processing. Combined with the findings of one study, which says that we consume 34 gigabytes of information (or 100,500 words) outside of work on an average day, it’s no wonder that images come as a relief from our regular information overload. And while information is often conveyed through images, visuals are much simpler. For example, symbols, such as road signs or wordless warning labels, can be processed by the brain in 150ms, and meaning attributed to it just 100ms after that. On top of all this, most of us have heard that a good deal of our “verbal” communication is conducted simply by our body language and received by others visually.
These studies, apart from being interesting in and of themselves, shed an interesting light on some of the tropes that have become commonplace in technology, and the trends and concerns that are still emerging and developing: the emphasis on design, the recognition of the need for aesthetic appeal, the emphasis on the tactile and visual over the strictly utilitarian and informational. These studies suggest that all of these things may be related, on some underlying level, simply to our brain’s inclination toward and capacity for the visual. Even games like Fruit Ninja and Candy Crush, some have pointed out, might rely equally on the appeal of the visual landscape created (think of the lush, plump fruits that gush when you slice them) as they do on the appeal of the actual functionality and playability of the game (which is of course also tactile and visual). If you look at it in this light, Steve Jobs seemed to have an uncanny, innate sense of our ability to naturally grasp visualized information, and our attraction to the aesthetic over the strictly informational, whereas those who ignored such concerns fell behind and got lost somewhere in the 34 gigabytes of information we consume every day.
And while the studies cited by NeoMam Studios are geared more toward infographics, most people would acknowledge that photographs (and videos) go beyond infographics in many ways. They’re not at all restricted to conveying information. They can do that, but they can do much more, somehow. They can convey feelings, report historical events and convey the emotion and drama attached to those events, offer glimpses into other people’s points of view, show us realities and lives that are completely foreign to us. The list goes on.
But here’s something we hadn’t considered before. In a TED talk from 2008, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains the concept of “flow,” which he characterizes as a state in which “…a sense of time disappears. You forget yourself. You feel part of something larger.” It’s a kind of focused relaxation which he cites as the key to happiness. Often, when we become focused on continuously viewing photographs, we enter this state of flow. This might help explain why we tend to become so fixated when we’re scrolling through photos on Instagram, Facebook, or Flickr. We’ve all had that experience – you look up and realize you’ve just spent hours clicking and scrolling through photos online, not paying much attention to time passing (often followed by a sense of frustration at how much time we’ve wasted).
But it turns out that many people think this tendency, apart from being a natural part of how our brain functions, can actually be a very good thing. This state of flow, it turns out, is similar to the mental state achieved by meditation. So the act of looking through photographs can potentially become like a kind of meditation. Anybody who has spent some time looking through collections of photography can probably relate to this, especially if the medium and the environment are conducive (think of a nice book of photographs, or an exhibit at a museum.)
So even if the concept of flow offers one interesting way to look at why we like to look at photographs so much, so often, and in such large quantities, can it offer any insights into why we take so many photos? At least a few people seem to think so. Psychologist and photographer John Suler argues that photography can help us enter into a state of “mindfulness,” a concept he borrows from Buddhism and which is similar to the concept of flow. Suler says that photography allows us to catch glimpses of the world that are uncomplicated by our own awareness. In other words, normally our thoughts, emotions, and preconceptions color our view of the world in very particular ways. But the physical act of holding the camera up to our eye (or in the case of smartphones, holding it out in front of us), Suler says, can temporarily disarm us of our own view of the world, and allow us to experience it in a fresh way. Just as flow allows us to lose a sense of time and become absorbed into our task, mindfulness allows us to lose a sense of the world, and focus completely on the present moment.
Others have caught onto this as well. Stephen Batchelor, a Buddhist monk and photographer, writes, “I have found that meditative awareness is a heightened understanding and feeling for the concrete, sensuous events of daily existence,” and that “the pursuit of meditation and photography leads away from fascination with the extraordinary and back to a rediscovery of the ordinary.” Granted, it might seem like a stretch to connect this back to our normal photo-taking habits. Are most smartphone photographers in a state of meditation when they snap pictures of their food (if you’re not sure, take a look at Pictures of Hipsters Taking Pictures of Food)? Clearly not. But it might constitute at least an aspect of the physiological motivations behind why we do such things. Perhaps even the simple act of taking photos of our food is a kind of celebration, a “re-awareness,” of the ordinary. Either way, these concepts might offer further avenues for thinking about why and how we take and view photographs in the digital age, and how we can design technology that answers those needs.