Eidetic Memory: Is It Real?
We have all heard stories about people who have an eidetic memory (known more commonly as a photographic memory). These are people who remember extreme details of something even if they have only looked at it for a short period of time, read it through once or experienced it only briefly. Is it true that these people exist?
There is a lot of controversy around the eidetic memory. Some people say that the photographic memory is entirely a myth. They believe that those people who claim to have an eidetic memory actually simply have a close attention to detail, an ability to recall things more vividly than others and a set of tricks that increases their ability to remember things. Others insist that there is such a thing as the photographic memory – that they or someone they know is capable of looking at something for just a short period of time and memorizing in such close detail that it is as if their brain has taken a photograph of it which they can then recall at will.
The truth about memory is probably that human beings remember things on a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum is the person who has a photographic memory such as that described above. At the other end of the spectrum is the individual who has completely lost his or her memory. The majority of us live in the middle of this memory spectrum where we can remember some things with great detail and yet forget other things completely. As we get older, we often slide further down the spectrum towards the end of forgetfulness. It is difficult to say for sure if there is anyone who resides completely at the end of the spectrum on the side of the eidetic memory but it is certainly true that there are people who are much further along on that spectrum than others.
What is interesting about those people who have traditionally been considered to be eidetekers (the strange name for those people who may possess a photographic memory) is that they do not necessarily have a memory which remembers all details completely. Instead, they have an eidetic memory specific to certain subject areas in life. Many of these are areas of life related to the arts. For example, some people have a strong photographic memory when it comes to music and others can draw a scene in exact details after seeing it only once. Other people seem to have a photographic recall for numbers (people who can recite Pi to an extraordinarily long decimal, for example). And then there are a few rare people who possess a high degree of memory across a range of areas of life.
People with a Photographic Memory
Let’s take a look at some examples of people who have been thought to have a memory that is so far along the spectrum of memory recall that it could be considered to be a photographic memory:
• Kim Peek. This is the man that the movie Rainman was based on. He is an individual who is considered a savant and who possesses the unique combination of a photographic memory along with severe developmental disabilities. It has been analyzed that he recalls over 98% of what he reads and it is said that he can remember the content of over 12,000 books. Because he can recall facts across a diverse range of topics, it is probably fairly accurate to say that he has as close to a true eidetic memory as one can get.
• Nikola Tesla. This inventor and engineer is reported to have had a photographic memory, allowing him to recall what he read and incorporate it into his work.
• Mozart. This is an example of someone that it’s really hard to say for sure whether he had an eidetic memory or not. On the one hand, he certainly had a supreme memory for music. On the other hand, this may be due to intense training and focus in this area of study and have nothing to do with his memory at all. Hans von Bulow and Rachmaninoff are two more examples of people who may or may not have eidetic memory in the specific area of music.
• Swami Vivekananda. This Indian Guru supposedly was capable of reading ten encyclopedia volumes in just a few days and recalling the content of all of them.
• Andriy Slyusarchuk. This man not only memorized the number Pi to the millionth digit but was also able to hear the page number, row and column of a printed version of pi and to cite which number was in that location on the printed table!
What is clear from looking at these examples is that there are certainly people out there who have astounding memory abilities. However, it is not so clear whether they have a true photographic memory or not.
Why Eidetic Memory Interests Us So Much
Eidetic memory is a really fascinating topic that interests the average American to at least some degree. We can see this in the number of television characters who have been created with a photographic memory. This is particularly common to see in television crime shows – examples include the star of the show Monk, the character Zack Ady from Bones and the character Spencer from Criminal Minds. Characters with photographic memory also show up in film and literature and they play a strong role in comic books.
Perhaps it is because the photographic memory is kind of like a super power that it interests us so much. Most of us feel that our memories fail us at least some of the time. We would like to be able to recall more than we do – to remember the scent of our first lover’s skin or to bring back pieces of our childhood that have been lost to time. The idea that there are people out there who can do this with ease is of interest to those of us who find it impossible to imagine. Whether or not those people are “real”, they are certainly something to aspire to!