Have you ever heard of photographic memory? The concept of photographic memory is simple: it’s the idea that a person can remember images, text, and situations as if they were reviewing a photograph within their mind. Reports of this phenomena have been around for ages.1 However, do people with photographic memories actually exist? The answer to this question, as well as some tips on how you can improve your memory, is offered below.
What Is Eidetic Memory?
One scientific name for photographic memory is eidetic memory. However, the definitions of these two kinds of memory are slightly different. Eidetic memory refers to the ability to view memories like photographs, while photographic memory means being able to recall text or numbers. This distinction can be difficult to discern and has caused some debate in the scientific literature.
Eidetic memory has been reported to exist in children primarily and is not generally seen in adults. Photographic memory has never been conclusively demonstrated by science. Some say that neither of the phenomena truly exist.
Individuals with eidetic memories report that after experiencing a situation, an imprint of the visual field, along with the sounds, smells, and even tastes that may have made up that moment in time, linger after the moment passes. Some individuals with eidetic memories will even report that the afterimage, or the representation of the moment that just passed, will appear projected into the field.
So, what is it like to live with eidetic memory? Imagine that you just saw a train pass in front of you. You see the cars rushing past, hear the creaking and squeaking of the train on the tracks, and feel the wind on your face as the train chugs by.
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If you had an eidetic memory, after the train has passed, it would still feel to you that the train was there.2 Some people with this kind of memory would say that they can still see the train moving on the tracks, hear the noises they heard just moments earlier, and even answer questions about the scene hours later.
One core distinction between photographic memory and eidetic memory is where the visual content of the memory appears to the individuals. For “eidetikers,” as they are called, the memory of the moment appears outside of themselves. This means they keep their eyes open, and the memory appears like a mirage in front of them.
For those with reportedly photographic memories, the image of the moment appears in their mind’s eye and is more easily recalled by closing the eyes.
How Common Is Eidetic Memory?
Most of the scientific research conducted on eidetic memory has shown that it is a phenomenon that primarily arises in children. It can actually be quite common for individuals under 12. Approximately two to 10 percent of children between the ages of six and 12 have demonstrated eidetic memories.
This prevalence appears to drop dramatically in adults. Some have guessed that the reason that memories are so strong when individuals are younger is a result of the necessity of developing high levels of communication skills in order to function in society.
Investigating Photographic Memory
Photographic memory, on the other hand, is the idea that you can reference your memories and gain information from them in the same the way that you would gain information from observing a photograph. There have been many anecdotal reports of individuals who appeared to have photographic memories. However, scientific research into the phenomenon has not been able to establish its existence. Nevertheless, this has not ended the debate as to whether individuals with a truly photographic memory exist.
The Adriaan de Groot Experiment
A famous psychologist named Adriaan de Groot tested the memory of the chess grandmasters. He wanted to determine whether these chess players had an advantage because of their memory skills.
What he discovered was interesting. When it came to their memory of regular chess positions, they had a strong advantage over non-chess experts. When they were given a chess board to memorize with the pieces in their proper locations, they were able to recall the positions with amazing accuracy.
On the other hand, when they were shown chess boards with pieces in places that they would never typically be given in the rules and strategy of chess, the chess masters were not significantly better than non-chess players.
This demonstrated that while it is possible for individuals to develop terrific recall ability in specific subjects and categories of information, this does not necessarily mean that they have a photographic memory in general.
Hyperthymesia is a special psychological condition that describes individuals with an exceptional kind of memory. They have the ability to remember almost every intricate detail of things that have happened to them.
There have been some interesting documentaries exploring these lives of these individuals. Because of their nearly perfect memory of everything that has ever happened to them, they find it almost impossible to be present at the moment.
Again, though individuals with this condition have been shown to have extraordinary memories about things that happened to them, they do not have a similar kind of photographic memory for objective information.
How To Improve Memory
At this point, scientists still disagree about whether or not photographic memory truly exists. However, what they can agree on is that it is definitely possible to greatly improve your memory.
There are a variety of games, books, and other products on the market to help keep your memory sharp and to improve the overall elasticity of your brain. Many of these products are backed by clinical research demonstrating the benefits of engaging in these activities.
Research has also demonstrated that engaging with nostalgia can help improve your memory skills.3 The same areas of your brain that remember tasks you have to accomplish in the future are activated when you remember events from your past. Therefore, you can help strengthen your ability to achieve goals in the present when you reflect on the past in a meaningful way.
The Memory Olympics
Some individuals have taken the task of strengthening their memories so seriously that they compete in a series of events called the USA Memory Championship.4 These events attract individuals who have always recognized they have strong memory recall and want to improve their short term memory recall skills.
There are four different events that memory enthusiasts participate in during the games. The first event is the names and faces. This event asks participants to look at faces with names and then remember the names after seeing the faces again.
Another event asks participants to recall a series of numbers, and yet another asks participants to recall a series of playing cards. Lastly, there is an event that asks the individuals to hear poetry recited and then recite it back to the judges.
Some individuals participate in all events, while others only focus on one. There are both male and female champions selected. These games are all put on for good fun, but they also reveal a lot about the different potential strengths and weaknesses in memory.
Taking online tests or playing games can help you get to know the relative strength of your memory and explore ways to improve it. Having a strong short-term memory is one of the best ways to stay focused on tasks and complete them with precision and care.
While many scientists cast doubt on the idea that there are any individuals with a truly photographic memory, there is plenty of evidence that individuals can improve their memories.
Photo credits: Peshkova/shutterstock.com, SergeKa/shutterstock.com, smolaw/shutterstock.com, Cherries/shutterstock.com