You might have heard stories about someone who has a photographic memory. Perhaps you even thought you or someone you know might have one. But is a photographic memory real?
The brain works as a super machine, storing several types of memory. Imagine it as a computer hard drive, where it’s possible to keep large amounts of compartmentalized data. Yet there is a limit to the amount of information we can retain in any given memory. For example, according to German neuroscientist Boris Konrad, “Most people can hold between five and nine new chunks of information in their working memory.” Considering that working memory (the one that allows you to hold knowledge for use at the precise moment) is short-lived, that’s a big undertaking.
So, the pursuit of this remarkable feat has long intrigued scientists around the world. For years, neuroscientists and memory researchers have tried to understand the photographic memory phenomenon and how it works in people’s minds — another window for learning how our brains process information. But you may wonder what it really means to have this extraordinary skill.
What Is a Photographic Memory?
Photographic memory is the ability to recollect information from a material, book or document in precise detail. It usually happens after brief exposure and without visualization. But the memory can last for a long time. Researchers have shown that our brains can preserve large numbers of images in our long-term memory after brief exposure to them. And this capacity increases the more contact we have with the material.
Overall, people tend to use the terms photographic memory and eidetic memory interchangeably. But in practical terms, they are not the same. Eidetic memory is when someone remembers the detail of a visual image right after seeing it, as if in a photograph. Some scientists refer to it as a “supercharged working memory.” The duration of this memory is short-lived, within seconds to a few minutes, as it tends to fade with time. But the visualization in the mind’s eyes is as vivid as it can be. This happens mostly in children (an average of 2 to 10 percent), especially those who are on the autism spectrum. So far, there is no evidence eidetic memory occurs in adults.
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In the real world, eidetic memory is the type of photographic memory most people frequently refer to.
Is a Photographic Memory Real?
Scientists have yet to prove that photographic memory exists. Some even explain that what people call eidetic memory may be related to other causes, including reconstructive memory. In other words, those with eidetic memory may receive the influence of different mental processes, such as attention, perception and motivation.
There is also the case of mistaking a photographic memory with having extreme memory conditions such as savantism and hyperthymesia. Savant syndrome is a condition in which an individual with a developmental disorder has exceptional intellectual gifts in one or more specific areas — for example, enhanced memory. Often, these individuals are on the autism spectrum. On the other hand, a person with hyperthymesia can recall minute details of their personal life.
In most cases of alleged eidetic and photographic abilities, researchers have later discovered that people used mnemonics or cognitive strategies to enhance memory. Not only that, but the samples of recollection, although exceptional, needed to be more sound.
People Claiming to Have It
Although science has never been able to prove the existence of photographic memory, in several cases, people have claimed to have one. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Nicolas Tesla and Leonardo da Vinci are among the famous people alleged to have a photographic memory.
Stephen Wiltshire — a talented British savant — is another famous case. He can outline detailed city skylines hours or days after he has observed them through quick, helicopter rides.
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A case that drew attention from the scientific community was that of a gifted artist and Harvard University teacher called “Elizabeth.” Elizabeth was the subject of a 1970 paper by scientist Charles F. Stromeyer III. And in this paper, Stromeyer explained Elizabeth’s eidetic skills based on a series of tests with dot pattern stereogram images. According to his findings, Elizabeth’s memory abilities were so extraordinary that she came close to having what’s known as photographic memory. Later on, however, skepticism grew due to the questionable methodology Stromeyer used. He was also unable to follow up on his research. Elizabeth, who later became his wife, declined any attempts to repeat the tests.
With this in mind, rigorous controlled testing could never verify these claims, and there is no proof that you can train your memory into a photographic memory.
Still, you can improve your memory and support long-lived memory health. Some of the best alternatives include exercise, meditation, visualization techniques (mnemonics devices) and a diet rich in omega-3, blueberries, nuts and seeds.
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