Photographic memory

You may have heard stories about someone who has a photographic memory. You may have even thought that you or someone you know might have one. But is photographic memory real?

The brain works like a super machine, storing several types of memory. Think of it like a computer’s hard drive, where large amounts of fragmented data can be stored. Yet there is a limit to the amount of information we can store in each memory. For example, according to German neurologist Boris Konrad“Most people can hold between five and nine new pieces of information in their working memory.” Given that working memory (the one that allows you to store knowledge for use at the right moment) is short-lived, this is a major undertaking .

So, the pursuit of this remarkable achievement has long intrigued scientists around the world. For years, neuroscientists and memory researchers have been trying to understand the phenomenon of photographic memory and how it works in people’s minds—another window into how our brains process information. But you might be wondering what it actually means to have this extraordinary skill.

What is photographic memory?

Photographic memory is the ability to recall information from a material, book, or document in precise detail. It usually occurs after a short exposure and without visualization. But the memory can last a long time. Researchers have shown that our brains can store a large number of images in our long-term memory after a short exposure to them. And that capacity increases the more contact we have with the material.

In general, people tend to use the terms photographic memory and eidetic memory interchangeable. But in practice they are not the same. Eidetic memory is when someone remembers the details of a visual image immediately after seeing it, as if it were in a photograph. Some scientists call it “overcharged working memory.” The duration of this memory is short-lived, within seconds to a few minutes, as it tends to fade over time. But the visualization in the mind’s eye is as vivid as can be. This happens mostly in children (average 2 to 10 percent), especially those on the autism spectrum. So far, there is no evidence that eidetic memory occurs in adults.

Read more: Understanding the basis of superior memory

In the real world, eidetic memory is the type of photographic memory that most people often talk about.

Is photographic memory real?

Scientists have not yet proven that photographic memory exists. Some even explain that what people call eidetic memory may be related to other causes, including reconstructive memory. In other words, those with eidetic memory can gain the influence of various mental processes, such as attention, perception, and motivation.

There is also a case of confusing photographic memory with possession extreme memory conditions such as savantism and hyperthymesia. Savant syndrome is a condition in which an individual with a developmental disorder has exceptional intellectual gifts in one or more specific areas—for example, enhanced memory. Often these people are on the autism spectrum. On the other hand, a person with hyperthymesia can remember small details of their personal life.

In most cases of alleged eidetic and photographic abilities, researchers later discovered that people have used mnemonics or cognitive strategies to improve memory. Not only that, but the recall patterns, while exceptional, needed to be more robust.

People who claim to own it

Although science has never been able to prove the existence of photographic memory, in several cases people have claimed to have one. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Nikola Tesla and Leonardo da Vinci are among the famous people who are said to have a photographic memory.

Stephen Wiltshire – a talented British scientist – is another famous case. He can sketch detailed city skylines hours or days after observing them through quick helicopter tours.

Read more: 3 unique ways we can remember the past

A case that caught the attention of the scientific community was that of a talented artist and professor at Harvard University named “Elizabeth.” Elizabeth was subject to a A 1970 report by scholar Charles F. Strohmeier III. And in this article, Strohmeier explains Elizabeth’s eidetic skills based on a series of tests with stereogram images of dot patterns. According to his findings, Elizabeth’s memory was so exceptional that she approached what is known as photographic memory. Later, though skepticism was growing due to the questionable methodology used by Stromeyer. He also failed to follow through on his research. Elizabeth, who later became his wife, rejected any attempts to repeat the tests.

With this in mind, rigorous controlled tests could never confirm these claimsand there is no proof that you can train your memory in photographic memory.

You can though improve your memory and support long-term memory health. Some of the best alternatives include exercisemeditation, visualization techniques (mnemonic devices) and a diet rich in omega-3s, blueberries, nuts and seeds.

Read more: 5 Natural Ways You Can Improve Your Memory

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