The Truth About Photographic Memory

59-year-old Akira Haraguchi recited from memory the first 83,431 decimal places of pi, earning a spot in the Guinness World Records.

He must have a photographic memory, right? Not so. According to mounting evidence, it's impossible to recall images with near perfect accuracy.

Certainly, some people do have phenomenal memories. Chess masters can best multiple opponents while blindfolded. Super card sharks can memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than a minute. But people with Herculean memories tend to be adept at one specific task—i.e., a person who memorizes cards may be inept at recognizing faces.

Alan Searleman, a professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University in New York, says eidetic imagery comes closest to being photographic. When shown an unfamiliar image for 30 seconds, so-called "eidetikers" can vividly describe the image—for example, how many petals are on a flower in a garden scene. They report "seeing" the image, and their eyes appear to scan across the image as they describe it. Still, their reports sometimes contain errors, and their accuracy fades after just a few minutes. Says Searleman, "If they were truly 'photographic' in nature, you wouldn't expect any errors at all."

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While people can improve their recall through tricks and practice, eidetikers are born, not made, says Searleman. The ability isn't linked to other traits, such as high intelligence. Children are more likely to possess eidetic memory than adults, though they begin losing the ability after age six as they learn to process information more abstractly.

Although psychologists don't know why children lose the ability, the loss of this skill may be functional: Were humans to remember every single image, it would be difficult to make it through the day.

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