There's No Such Thing as a Photographic Memory

It's easy to think you remember more accurately than you do.

Posted Apr 06, 2015

Many people boast that they have a "photographic memory." Some people do seem to have had astounding memories. For example, Arturo Toscanini conducted operas from memory after his eyesight became too poor to read the music. World champions who perform great feats like memorizing many digits of Pi practice diligently using special strategies that associate data with meaningful, memorable images. But there is no verified case of a memory that works like a camera. 

The phenomenon that comes closest is “eidetic memory,” which shows up in about 2 to 10 percent of children, but virtually no adults. "Eidetikers" can hold onto an image for about half a minute to several minutes after it is gone. If you give them 30 seconds to look at a picture, even after you whisk it away, eidetikers will say "I see...." in the present tense and claim they can still see it. They can describe it with unusual accuracy and detail. In an ordinary afterimage, the black dot you might see after a white camera flash, the black dot moves with your eyes. Eidetic images don’t move as you move your eyes, and they are in the same color as the original. 

All this may sound like a photographic memory, but there are several differences between the way eidetic memory and cameras functions. 

If eidetikers intentionally blink, the image vanishes, and they can't retrieve it. It is not stored like a photograph. 

Eidetic images don't capture all details. In a study of German children who were eidetikers, none of the children could name all the letters in a word that had appeared in a picture they were shown.

The most important difference is that eidetikers invent details that were never there, "remembering" things that aren't true, as all human beings do, notes Alan Searleman, a professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University and co-author of the textbook, Memory from a Broader Perspective.

Imagery is a good way to boost your own memory. You can create your own personal mnemonics — the fancy word for memory devices. It helps if you use happy images, since we tend to block out unpleasant associations. Colorful images and images with three dimensions can be more vivid. Exaggerate the size of some parts of the image. Add a note of humor — a pig in a ballroom. Use known symbols like traffic signs.

People with good memory skills understand how memory works and don’t let it deceive them. Trusting your memory completely means you’ve fallen for a trick — a trick you played on yourself.

For example, we tend to believe that memories of an important event — sometimes called flashbulb memories — are especially accurate because they feel vivid and precise. On September 12, 2001, 54 students at Duke University in North Carolina recorded their memory of first hearing about the terrorist attacks of September 11 and of a recent everyday event. Researchers tested them 1, 6, and 36 weeks later, and found that their memory of both September 11 and the everyday event diminished over time. But like most of us, the students strongly believed that their September 11 memory was accurate. 

A version of this piece appeared on Your Care Everywhere. 

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