Can Photography Explain Memory? Memory Booth Art Exhibition at Yale University

What happens when you take a photo of a photo of a photo… and how does this simulate human memory?

Memory is Like the Telephone Game

A 2012 Northwestern study investigating memory concluded that memory is like the telephone game. When you remember something, you’re actually not recalling the original event. Instead, you’re remembering what you remembered from your last recall of this memory.

What does this mean for memory? Not only does it explain a cause of false memories, but this phenomenon can be helpful in treating patients with PTSD, which allows memories to be “adjusted” by healthcare professionals.

When you remember something, you’re actually remembering the last time you remembered it.

Art + Computer Science + Medicine

Presenting, the memory booth. Based on a previous blog article, Alexandra Junn and I created a full-fledged exhibit sponsored by Yale Program for Humanities in Medicine. Here’s a description of the exhibit, how it works, and how to get involved (yes, you can participate remotely!)

Memorecursion, 2018

Memories are not perfect, photographic representations of past experiences, but instead are dynamic interpretations altered with each recollection. As we reactivate our memories, we integrate new information from our current context into the memory itself. These constructive processes, known as memory reconsolidation, can be prone to distortion and error.

This piece explores the process of memory reconsolidation through photography, asking, What happens when you take a photo of a photo of a photo….? How does this recursive process reflect the way our brains recall memories?

View the full gallery on Instagram at @memorecursion

Into the Loop

From a technical perspective, how does this art exhibit take photos of photos and produce a final MP4?

Left: the iPad photobooth where visitors snap a selfie. Right: the iphone/macbook system that automates the recursive photography process.
  1. Visitors enter the photo booth and snap a selfie on the iPad, using an IFTTT applet that automatically uploads the photo to a Dropbox folder.
  2. Meanwhile, a Python script is running on a Macbook outside the booth, which detects any new files in the Dropbox folder.
  3. The Python script opens the iPad image on the Macbook.
  4. The Macbook then uses Type2Phone to send a “volume up” keypress to to the lighting cable connected iPhone. This is automated using a simple Applescript. (“Volume up” triggers the camera shutter on an iPhone)
  5. The iPhone snaps the photo of the original photo.
  6. Using a second Applescript, the new photo is opened on the Macbook.
  7. The process repeats for a set number of iterations.
  8. After the process is complete, the Python script compiles the images into a mp4 file and uploads it back to the Dropbox to be viewed by the visitor.


Here are some more questions related to the exhibit:

  • Notice that the colors trend toward certain values. why? What does it mean for our memories to trend toward values?
  • Notice the slightest bit of human error is amplified in the experiment — what does this mean for our memory?
  • What would happen if there were a filter on the photos?
  • What commonalities do you notice across the different videos?
  • How would this exhibit be different with photocopying machines? Sound recordings? Other copying systems?

Visit! The Memory Booth Exhibit will be available from 11AM-4PM Mon Aug 27 — Thur Aug 31 in Cafe Med, Harkness Hall, Yale School of Medicine.

Participate remotely! To participate remotely, post a picture with the hashtag #memorecursion, and the top 10 photos will be “memorecursed” in the exhibit and posted to the @memorecursion Instagram account.

More by Stephen Cognetta

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