The Disadvantages of Having a Photographic Memory
If you've ever had to study for a test, you may have wished you had a photographic memory or eidetic memory. After all, what could be better than looking through a text once and easily memorizing all of the material. And what about all of those times you've mislaid your car keys. You wouldn't have that worry anymore, right?
There's a series of children's books called Cam Jansen by David Adler. The series is about a 5th grade detective named Jennifer Jansen. She is nicknamed Cam, short for Camera, because of her photographic memory. She closes her eyes and says "click" while memorizing a scene in front of her. She can then recall these events to solve a mystery. While Cam Jansen makes for great stories, would her brain in reality be so overloaded with unnecessary facts that she would struggle to separate what matters from what doesn't when it comes to solving a mystery?
Problems With Photographic Memories
In Slate, college student Allan Nielsen explained that there are both upsides and downsides to having a photographic memory. Here are examples of what he can remember:
I can vividly recall sight and sounds, into the tiniest detail. Without even concentrating, I can visualize people I have seen for even just 5 minutes. I can even recall such small details as jewelry, hairstyle, make-up, etc.
Then he gives an example of problems that can be caused by having an excellent memory:
Sometimes, I can't control when I visualize memories...I sometimes tend to visualize the equations and formulas my math teacher present in class, in real time. That can easily make me want to visualize the equations with various different combinations, and therefore render me much less active in lessons.
Finally, he explains why he's not a straight A student:
The simple answer is that the "photographs" in my memory are so fragmented and so cluttered that it consumes a whole lot of my energy just to visualize one chosen memory.
Remembering lots of stuff doesn't necessarily make you smarter. In fact, the brain can become overloaded with lots of unneeded information. Forgetting makes our brains more efficient. Memory involves selecting bits of information we need while ignoring what's unnecessary. Remembering what someone looks like is beneficial. Remembering exactly what they were wearing each and every time we meet them isn't.
Intelligence involves more than remembering lots of stuff. It also involves the ability to apply knowledge and skills. An overloaded brain may not be able to do that effectively.
TED Talk on Memory Training
Pruning is a process the brains of children undergo to become more efficient. Experiences during infancy and childhood impact the development of the brain. Pruning weeds out unnecessary connections in the brain and strengthens the important connections. By eliminating the connections that are not used very often, the most necessary connections can grow and expand, making the brain more efficient. This is one reason why early learning is so important.
For example, an infant's brain has connections that allow them to hear sounds from all languages. During early childhood, the brain strengthens connections for sounds in the languages the child is being exposed to. Connections for sounds that aren't heard are eliminated over time. Adults often have trouble "hearing" sounds that are not in our native languages. Young children can hear and distinguish these sounds. That's why young children can learn multiple foreign languages more easily than adults can. It's also why the ages of 4 to 6 are so crucial for ear training in music.
Do Photographic Memories Exist?
Sticking with Slate, Joshua Foer tells us:
Lots of people claim to have a photographic memory, but nobody actually does. Nobody.
He does say that there are people with excellent memories but:
They just can't take mental snapshots and recall them with perfect fidelity.
According to scientific studies, photographic memories don't actually exist. People with excellent memories don't recall with 100% accuracy. Excellent memory is often limited to specific tasks. Someone who is great at remembering faces may not be good at memorizing cards or numbers. Someone who can remember an article word-for-word may have trouble remembering where they left their keys.
There are definitely things we can do to improve our memories. And using these techniques we can actually control what we do want to remember. Having a photographic memory seems great in theory. However, a brain overloaded with unnecessary information could make day-to-day life very difficult.