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Photographic Memory

Does photographic memory exist?

"Photographic" or eidetic memory is said to occur in some 8% of children, but almost all of these grow out of it. The phenomenon is extremely rare in adults, and indeed the very existence of photographic memory is still somewhat contentious. However, it may be that particular brain abnormalities can lead to ways of processing information that are dramatically different from the normal (see the case of Kim Peek).

Is a photographic memory desirable?

It is generally assumed that at any rate such a memory would be a great thing to have. I am by no means sure, however, that such is the case.

Let us dwell for a moment on Shereshevskii, a remarkable memorist made famous in a book by A.R. Luria. Although Shereshevskii did not have a “photographic” memory as such, he had a formidable ability to rapidly and easily commit vast amounts of information to memory, due to his amazing capacity for synaesthesia (the association of one sensory modality with another, so, e.g., you might “see” a tone as green) and ability to create visual images.

However, while advantageous in many regards, this ability did have a quite serious downside. Irrelevant details would tend to be included in his memory, and these would stand in the way of his subsequent recall. The confusion of so many conflicting images and sensory details would also often impede his understanding. He also had great difficulty in forgetting, and as time went on had increasing difficulty with the many items in his memory he did not wish to recall (although he did in fact hit on a solution to this: he imagined the information written on a blackboard, and pictured himself erasing it!)

Interestingly, some time ago, I received an email from a reader who knew an adolescent troubled with a “photographic memory” — she had a great deal of difficulty understanding what she was reading.

My point is that simply being a database, like a computer, is not sufficient in itself. Memory to be useful must be able to be used! And the most effective memory strategies are those that facilitate the use of memory, not simply its storage.

On this note, I would like to quote Mary Carruthers, who has written extensively about the medieval “arts of memory”. Carruthers argues convincingly that the idea that “the good of an art of memory is to remember things in order to regurgitate them by rote later on” is a misconception. On the contrary, “the orator’s “art of memory” was not in practice designed to let him reiterate exactly in every detail a composition he had previously fabricated. … [but] an art of invention, an art that made it possible for a person to … respond to interruptions and questions, or to dilate upon the ideas that momentarily occurred to him without becoming hopelessly distracted, or losing his place in the scheme of his basic speech.”

Similarly, the art of memory practiced by medieval monks involved “the making of mental images for the mind to work with as a fundamental procedure of human thinking.” The technique was designed not simply to provide “immediate access to whatever piece of stored material one may want, [but] also provides the means to construct any number of cross-referencing, associational links among the elements.”

  • Carruthers, M. 1998. The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric. and the Making of Images. 400-1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ericsson, K.A. (1985). Memory skill. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 39, 188-231.
  • Higbee, Kenneth L. Your memory. How it works and how to improve it. NY: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1988.
  • Luria, A.R. 1968. The Mind of a Mnemonist. New York: Basic Books.
  • Thompson, C. P., Cowan, T.M. & Frieman, J. Memory search by a memorist. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Ass., 1993.