People with extraordinary memory
Whether there is a such a thing as photographic memory or not depends on your definition of photographic memory. If you mean having a memory like a camera where you can see something for an instance and it gets stored in memory in such a way as to never forget it, then the answer is "not really" (with the possible exception of few isolated cases mentioned later). However, there are other instances where extra-ordinary memory comes close to being photographic. This article will look at some of these cases.
But first, let's see what others have to say about photographic memory...
People With Extra-Ordinary Memory
Kenneth Higbee, author of writes that "most of what people attribute to a photographic memory is merely the powerful application of learned memory techniques." Your Memory: How It Works and How to Improve It
There are people with extra-ordinary memory abilities. But Higbee writes that "All these performances have been attributed by researchers, and by the performers themselves, to the use of learned mnemonics, interest, and practice more than to innate abilities."
Some examples that Higbee gives are ...
- a couple of college students who can repeat a string of 70-plus digits of numbers after hearing it once.
- a waiter that can hold 19 complete diner orders in his head.
- a college student who can square six-digit numbers in his head.
- and a man who has exceptional memory for varied types of information including numbers, prose, names and faces.
Of course, people are born with different levels of memory abilities. And there are some few exceptional individual who do posses exceptional innate memory abilities.
One such person is a Russian newspaper reporter named Shereshevskii. When presented with a sequence of 70 words or numbers, he can recall them forward and backwards. When tested again 15 to 16 years later, he was still able to recall the words.
The case of Shereshevskii comes very close to being a photographic memory. But it is still not photographic because he is not able to take snapshot recording of a picture. He had to study the material that he needed to memorize. It takes him 40 seconds in order to memorize 20 digits. To memorize 50 digits, he needed 2 to 3 minutes.
Shereshevskii was diagnosed with synaesthesia in which simulation of one sense like hearing would invoke sensation of another sense such as color. The synaesthesia condition aided his ability to remember.
Yet this inborn ability can have its drawbacks. Shereshevskii would have difficulty erasing un-needed information. Every time he read words, it brings up an image in his mind which clutter his thinking.
Sometimes not being able to forget is quite inconvenient, as Jill Price describes in an NPR interview. Due to a rare medical condition, Jill Price can recall every detail of her life for the past three decades. She writes more about it in her book "The Woman Who Can't Forget".
She is one of about twenty subjects positively diagnosed with the condition hyperthymesia.
Similarly, Aurelien can remember every day of his life as shown in the new documentary "The Boy Who Can't Forget".
Savants and individuals with autism may have extra-ordinary innate abilities and some can perform great memorization feats. Daniel Tammet is a high-functioning autistic savant who can memorize the mathematical constant PI to over 22 thousand digits. He recited the PI digits (without error) over the course of 5 hours for "PI day" on March 14, 2004.
He also has a form of synesthesia that enables him to see numbers visually with texture, shapes, and colors. This may be responsible for his facility to memorize numbers. Nevertheless, it would not be considered a photographic memory in the sense that it did take him many days to study and memorize this long string of numbers.
Another group of people that may have something close to photographic memory are people with eidetic memory. And some people use the term "eidetic memory" as synonymous to "photographic memory". Eidetic memory is defined as "a very strong visual afterimage that enables a person to duplicate a picture mentally and describe it in detail shortly after looking at it." In terms of the number of people who have this, it is not more than 5% to 10% of children. Eidetic memory occurs less with age. For adults, one investigator guess that maybe as little as one in a thousand have it.
Of course, it is hard to distinguish true eidetic memory from regular visual memory.
There are several distinctions that make eidetic memory different from what most people think of as photographic memory.
- Eidetic memories last only a few seconds and then fades.
- Once image have faded, it can not be retrieved.
- The memory can contain errors such as omission and additions.
- Still requires viewing time of more than a split second to study the scene.
If you define photographic memory as the ability to retain the image accurately over long term, then no one has been able to shown this scientifically.