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Photographic Memory: Reality or Myth?

Author: Katherine Chen

Editors: Hwi-On Lee and Yueshan Yu

Artist: Chiara Chen

        Do you ever find yourself cramming at the last minute for a test, wishing you could just look through everything once and effortlessly recall it later? A photographic memory would describe the ability to take a mental snapshot of the information in front of you and remember the details perfectly when you need it again. Photographic memory works just like a camera: it permanently stores information without alteration and allows the individual to zoom in on specific details. Those with photographic memory can even notice details that they didn’t before. While this sounds ideal, is photographic memory actually real? 

          The short answer, unfortunately, is no. There has been no conclusive evidence to prove that photographic memory exists. You could test if someone has photographic memory by presenting two or three lines of text and asking them to repeat it in reverse order. They would have to be able to complete the task successfully by reading the snapshot they have captured in their memory. But, in reality, memory is more like a puzzle rather than a photograph. There is a limit to the information we can retain at once. We remember past events by piecing together parts that we do remember and are good at serving the general gist instead of every detail. 

              The closest to photographic memory that researchers have encountered in individuals is eidetic memory. Eidetic memories are rare and usually found in children from the ages of six to twelve. These children can recall an image with exceptional precision after just a few minutes of exposure. Most people, however, lose this ability as they mature and grow up, leading some scientists to believe that eidetic memory is part of a developmental stage and acts as an immature form of memory. Individuals with eidetic memory, called eidetikers, can be tested using methods such as the Picture Elicitation Method. The individual is shown an unfamiliar picture on an easel for thirty seconds, during which they thoroughly examine it. Afterwards, the picture is taken away and the individual is asked to continue looking at the easel to describe what they can make out. People with eidetic memory can say with confidence that they can still see the image. And just like the picture shown, they can scan it and dive into its different components. People with eidetic imagery also tended to use the present tense when answering the questions rather than the past tense, recalling the image thoroughly. However, despite these abilities, they would still not have a photographic memory.

         Eidetic memory is not as accurate as photographic memory. Even though Eiditikers describe with incredible detail, they are prone to memory reconstruction—the idea that other memories could alter the visual information with our biases and cause an individual to make up other details in place.  Unlike photographic memories, which last forever and can be retrieved whenever most eidetic memories only last around half a minute to several minutes. The image is voluntarily destroyed just by blinking, and there would rarely be a way to retrieve it, similar to seeing an afterimage. Usually, with afterimages such as the ones you get from a bright white flash, the colors are inverted, and a black dot appears in your field of view, moving each time you move your eyes. But with eidetic memory, the image does not move when the eyes move, and the colors are accurately represented. 

         You might be wondering: then how are some people able to recall specific dates or lines from texts such as the Bible?  This is done through dedicated studying to gather familiarity with the materials, but memory recall can still be improved through several other ways. You can start by improving your sleep schedule since sleep is where memory consolidation, the process by which short-term memories are transformed into long-term memories, typically occurs.  Exercising your brain with activities and games such as puzzles can help cognitively stimulate better recall. Through practice and the usage of mnemonics or memory devices, you can also get better at retaining information. And although you can’t develop a photographic memory, you certainly can work towards building a strong one.

 

Citations:

Searleman, Alan. “Is There Such a Thing as a Photographic Memory? And If so, Can It Be

Learned?” Scientific American, 12 Mar. 2007, www.scientificamerican.com/article/is-

Squire, Larry. “Is Photographic Memory Real? If so, How Does It Work?” BrainFacts.Org, 17

“The Truth About Photographic Memory.” YouTube, Seeker, 31 Mar. 2015,

“Does Photographic Memory Exist? - BBC Reel.” YouTube, BBC Global, 11 June 2021,

Chan, Katharine. “Eidetic Memory: The Reality behind the ‘photographic’ Mind.” Verywell

Mind, Verywell Mind, 8 Jan. 2024, www.verywellmind.com/eidetic-memory-7692728

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