Does Photographic Memory Exist?

Throughout history people have desired perfect memories. During the ancient Greek and Roman eras, having a highly developed memory was the key to power, as those politicians who could best remember long and impressive speeches, with lots of facts, were the most likely to win popular approval.

Also, before the printing press, a good memory was the key to having access to information: when there weren’t any books, you had to rely on your own memory totally. Then during the middle ages, a well developed memory was seen as a sign of holiness (but if your memory was too good, you were suspected of witchcraft!).

Whenever I speak to people about memory, the one question always crops up: how can I get a photographic memory?

What do they mean by photographic memory? Mostly people mean the ability to use your eyes and brain as a sort of camera. So that you can just look at something for a split second, and….click! Take a mental photograph of it. Then, days, weeks, or years later you can then just retrieve this mental image from your memory and look over every detail of it, perfectly, as if you were still looking at it.

Most people would love to have this skill!

However, the truth is this: photographic memory, as described above, does not exist! Human memory never operates in this camera-like way. We are not so objective, our memories are affected by our emotional states and what we are looking at. As does our level of interest in what we’re looking at (we tend to remember more of the aspects of an image that we’re most interested by).

There are some rare cases of people through the years who’ve seemed to have photographic memory, but in reality it turns out that their memories – whilst exceptionally good, are not quite photographic. They don’t just look at the item for a split second, but usually look at it carefully for many seconds, or minutes, studying it. Also, they tend to be highly focused in how they concentrate on the thing to be remembered, and they almost always use some kind of memory techniques rather than being born with a natural photographic memory.

However, what *does* exist – and often gets confused as being photographic memory – is something called eidetic imagery. Eidetic imagery is like a kind of afterimage. If you’ve ever stared at something very bright – such as a flame – and then looked away, you might have experienced being able to still see the thing, albeit in a ghostly form. This is an afterimage, and it usually isn’t very detailed, and fades very fast. However, about one in ten children have a more enhanced version of this, called eidetic imagery, whereby they can look at something, then close their eyes or look away and still see the exact image for a number of seconds. Sadly, most of the children who have this ability grow out of it, and its therefore very rare in adults.

So, while it’s a waste of time to search for the ‘holy grail’ of photographic memory, we shouldn’t despair as we can all improve our memories by simply using memory enhancement techniques. And the fact that some people can improve their memories so much using those techniques that others think they have a photographic mind just shows how powerful they can be!


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