Is There Such a Thing as Photographic Memory?

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The best early ‘90s children’s bookshelves were full of books about child detectives, from Nancy Drew to Encyclopedia Brown to Cam Jansen, the fifth grade super-sleuth with a photographic memory. She was called “Cam,” short for “camera,” because she would close her eyes and say, “click!” to instantly memorize every detail of a scene. It’s the kind of thing that seems too good to be true—a perfect fictional device endowing a fifth-grader with nearly foolproof crime-solving skills—but does anyone really have a memory as accurate as a camera?

The short answer, sadly, is no: “photographic memory” is mostly hype and hyperbole. Studies conducted on eidetic memory—the medical term for a super-accurate memory, and the examined phenomenon closest to what popular culture calls photographic memory—have varied in their diagnoses of savants like Stephen Wiltshire, whose feats of applied memorization include drawing entire city skylines unassisted after a brief helicopter ride above them. Despite claims that such diverse figures as physicist Nikola Tesla, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Mr. T of A-Team fame (among others) possessed a photographic memory, scientists have understandably found it difficult to construct a standardized test for it. When documented memory experts like the yearly winners of the World Memory Championships make no secret of the techniques and conscious practice they use to assist their memorizations, it’s hard to determine the difference between a photographic memory and sheer hard work.

Eidetic memory, as distinct from photographic memory, is an uncommon but not unheard-of phenomenon, thought to occur in 2 percent to 15 percent of children. Presented with a 30-second view of an illustration on an easel, “eidetikers” are capable of vividly describing the image after its removal. They describe its details immediately, accurately, and in the present tense; their gaze glances around the empty easel as if the illustration still remains. The true test of their skill is a set of apparently random dots, and a second image shown an appropriate interval of time after the first; those with truly eidetic memories can recall both disparate images and mentally combine them to render a single, 3D image that would require normal viewers to use a stereoscopic viewer. The feat is a remarkable one, but even eidetic memories fade, and very few adults retain the childhood gift into their later years.

The possibility of photographic memory’s existence is fascinating, but has yet to be backed up by anything other than (admittedly incredible) anecdotal evidence. Even if a picture is worth a thousand words, it’s probably still best to use a camera to make sure you remember each one.