Photographic Memory: What is this Interesting Phenomenon, How Does it Work, and is it Even Real?
Is having a photographic memory real? A photographic memory is usually used to describe when someone has the remarkable ability to recall visual information in great detail. Pop culture today portrays geniuses as those with photographic memories, but do our brains actually hold onto memories with inner photos or videos? Many times, television sitcoms, movies, and novels show a “genius” character as one who can look at a page in a book for two minutes and then repeat verbatim what was written. Are there actual people in the world today who can do this too? Read more to discover if a photographic memory is real!
Is Photographic Memory Real?
Photographic memory, also known as eidetic imagery in the neuroscience world, is the ability to remember an unlimited amount of visual information in great detail. Just like a camera can freeze a moment in time in the form of a photograph, someone with a photographic memory is supposed to be able to take mental snapshots and then later recall these snapshots without error.
However, according to the University of Chicago, San Diego Professor Larry Squire, who specializes in Psychiatry, Neuroscience, and Psychology, the brain simply does not work this way. In Professor Squire’s lab, he has asked people who think they have photographic memories to read two or three lines of text and then report the text in reverse order. The notion is that if memory works like a photograph, then these people should be able to accomplish the task with ease. However, none of the participants could do this successfully.
For Professor Squire, “Memory is more like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle than a photograph. To recollect a past event, we piece together various remembered elements and typically forget parts of what happened (examples: the color of the wall, the picture in the background, the exact words that were said)…We are good at remembering the gist of what happened and less good at remembering (photographically) all the elements of a past scene.” And this works to our advantage as our brains sift through what is important for us to remember and holds onto it
To show that photographic memory is non-existent among most people, cognitive psychologist Adriaan de Groot did an experiment with expert chess players to test their memory functioning. The players were first shown a chessboard with pieces on it for a brief period (about 15 seconds) and then asked to reconstruct what they had seen on a new chessboard.
The expert chess players succeeded at this task with higher efficiency than novice players. De Groot hypothesized that the experts had developed an enhanced ability to memorize visual information. However, in another experiment, the expert chess players were asked to do the same thing, but this time, they were shown boards with pieces arranged in ways that would never occur in a game of chess. Not only did their ability to remember the positions go down, but it dropped to the level of the novice players. De Groot concluded from this experiment that the original, enhanced performance of the chess players at remembering the positions came from their ability to mentally organize the information they had observed, not from any ability to “photograph” the visual scene.
How to Explain Cases of Photographic Memory
There have been a few well-documented cases of such remarkable photographic recall, such as “S,” the subject of Alexander Luria’s book, The Mind of a Mnemonist, who could memorize anything from the books on Luria’s office shelves to complex math formulas. Luria also documents a woman named “Elizabeth,” who could mentally project images composed of thousands of tiny dots onto a black canvas. Both also had the ability to reproduce poetry in languages they could not understand years after seeing it written. This type of recall seems to be correlated with the phenomenon of flashbulb memory, where, in highly emotional situations, people tend to remember events so vividly that the memories take on a photographic quality. Until recently, such memories were thought to be permanent, always strong in quality. However, recent studies have indicated that over time, people’s memories of such events will inevitably fade away.
However, it should be kept in mind that people vary in their ability to remember the past. In the article How to Improve Your Short-Term Memory: Study Tips to Remember Everything, we go over how pieces of information go through series of stages before they are retained in your long-term memory: first, the information is sent as a sensory input to your visual system, then it is received by the visual cortex, then it is processed by your short-term memory, and finally, it is stored in your long-term memory.
How well we remember things largely depends on how well we pay attention when information is presented to us. Also, the extent to which we replay material in our minds and connect it to what we already know affects our memory as well.
Since there are only isolated examples of people with eidetic memory throughout the study of neuroscience, many have concluded that there isn’t any explanation for how this phenomenon works neurologically. It is thought that for the rare cases of people with photographic memories, visual information gets stored as an actual image in the sensory input/reception stage. Since photographic memory involves seeing visual images, it must be on the very basic sensory level that eidetic memory functions.
The Neuroscience Behind Photographic Memory
Neuroscience researchers hypothesize that photographic memory involves something in the brain being wired incorrectly in patients like “S” and “Elizabeth” that has caused sensory stimuli to last in the memory for longer durations than most people. Memory is thought to be facilitated by changes at the neuronal level due to long-term potentiation. This means that over time, the synapses that work to hold onto our memories are strengthened through repeated usage, producing long-term memories. Normally, this induction takes many rounds of stimulation to start working so our brain can hold onto memories for long periods of time (which could be a reason why we don’t remember many events of our childhood and why we have virtually no recollection of the first two years of our lives).
Neuroscientists assume that people with photographic memories have a genetic mutation that lowers their threshold for long-term potentiation to hold onto memories. This then results in more visual images being stored as sensory memories and then long-term memories in the brain. Multiple stimulations do not seem to be necessary to retain the visual images; rather, one brief presentation of a stimulus would be sufficient.
Future Research on Photographic Memory
So, is photographic memory real? Photographic memory may be so rare that it appears to be almost fictional because it could be the result of an uncommon genetic mutation or an unlikely combination of environmental and genetic factors. Advancing the study of photographic memory requires scientists to find more subjects with unusual memory abilities. One recent case is that of “AJ,” a woman who seems to remember every detail about even the most trivial events during her lifetime. Neurological testing may yield a greater understanding of the location of memory in the brain and what causes such clear and detailed memories to form. With neuroscience technology increasing and the hope that more people with exceptional memories will come forward, it is possible that more research can be done to answer interesting questions about photographic memory.
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Radiyyah is an undergraduate student at Macaulay Honors College and Queens College. She is currently pursuing a double Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Neuroscience with a minor in Sociology. Radiyyah is passionate about all fields relating to the brain and social psychology and she hopes to continue her career in Neuropsychology research.