A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is there such a thing as "photographic memory"?

September 1, 2000

Dear Cecil:

A guy I knew in college claimed to be doing his graduate thesis on photographic memory and how one could acquire it. Since I never saw said genius again I want to know if such a thing really exists or if it's something out of spy novels.

Cecil replies:

Reminds me of a line I heard: We all have photographic memories, it's just that some of us don't have any film. The older I get, the less this seems like a joke.

Handy though it might be for your next biology exam, photographic memory in the popular sense is probably a myth. But something close to it can be found in some children. Eidetic memory, to use the clinical term, is the ability to recollect an image so vividly that it appears to be real. Typically the child is told to examine but not stare fixedly at an illustration on an easel for 30 seconds. Then the illustration is removed and the kid is asked to look at the empty easel and describe what he sees. Most offer vague recollections of the image, but perhaps one in twelve can describe it in accurate detail for five minutes or more. It's not just a retinal afterimage, either. The image has normal coloration, not an afterimage's complementary colors (blue becomes orange, etc.). The descriptions are in present tense — "I see …" — and given without hesitation. Most striking of all, the subject's eyes move around the nonexistent scene as he describes it, as though it were actually there.

Sure, the tests rely on self-report, leading some observers to think the testees were faking it, or at least not exhibiting anything out of the ordinary. Then someone hit on the ingenious notion of decomposing an illustration into two images, each consisting of an apparently meaningless set of lines or dots. One image would be presented for inspection, then taken away and after a few seconds replaced by the other. Those who truly had the gift could combine the two images into the original illustration — objective evidence, it would seem, that eidetic memory really exists.

Eidetic ability fades with age — one investigator guessed that fewer than one in a thousand adults had it. Most eidetikers can't summon the eidetic image once it fades from mind, either. But there are exceptions. In 1970 Psychology Today reported on Elizabeth, a Harvard instructor. Using her right eye, she looked for several minutes at a 100 x 100 grid of apparently random dots — 10,000 dots in all. The next day, using her left eye, she looked at a second grid of 100 x 100 dots. She then mentally merged this grid with the remembered one into a 3-D image that most people needed a stereoscopic viewer and both grids to see. Reportedly she could recall eidetic images of a million dots for as much as four hours.

Even eidetikers aren't seeing a truly photographic image, psychologists believe — they just have the ability to organize information with unusual efficiency. Children have the edge, no doubt, because they lack an adult's competing mental clutter. A means of organizing data seems to be the key to all superior memory, eidetic or otherwise. For example, expert chess players can re-create a board position involving two dozen pieces with great precision due to their knowledge of the game. But if the pieces are placed randomly on the board, the expert players' recall is no better than a novice's.

To some extent the ability to remember can be learned, although the result isn't photographic memory but simply improved recall. Even mnemonists, known for impressive feats of memory, enhance their native talent with tricks. One famous case was S., described by the Russian psychologist A.R. Luria. Among other things S. had an exceptional ability to retain things long after he'd originally memorized them. Once he was read the first four lines of Dante's The Divine Comedy in Italian, a language he did not understand. He was immediately able to recite the entire passage — and more impressively, he could still do so on command 15 years later, with no advance warning.

How had he done it? He associated each syllable with a mental image. The first line, Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, he rendered into images this way: Nel, Nel'skaya, a ballerina; mezzo, she is together with (Russian vmeste) a man; del, there is a pack of Deli cigarettes near them; cammin, a fireplace (Russian kamin) is also close by; di, a hand is pointing toward a door (Russian dver); nos, a man has fallen and gotten his nose (Russian nos) pinched in a doorway (Russian tra); vita, the man steps over a child, a sign of life — vitalism; and so on, for 48 syllables. It's all just a mnemonic trick, right? Sure, and for Michael Jordan it was the shoes.

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