The Myth of Photographic Memory

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
April 14, 2015

Although many people have been said to have astonishing powers of recall, there has never been a verified case of what we call a photographic memory ... because your mind isn’t a camera.

Many people have been said to have astonishing powers of recall, including Ferdinand Marcos, the former dictator of the Philippines, and Arturo Toscanini, who conducted operas from memory after his eyesight became too poor to read the music. However, there is no verified case of what we call a photographic memory.

What is an eidetic memory?

The phenomenon that comes closest is “eidetic memory.” About 2 percent to 10 percent of preadolescents, but probably virtually no adults, have the ability to hold onto an image for about half a minute to several minute after it is gone. The most common way to identify “eidetikers” is the “Picture Elicitation Method.” The person being tested scans a picture on an easel, which is removed after 30 seconds. Eidetikers will claim that they can still "see" the picture and answer questions about it in the present tense with unusual accuracy and detail.

These images are not the same as an ordinary afterimage, the black dot you might see after a white camera flash. The black dot moves with your eyes. Eidetic images don’t move as you move your eyes, and are in the same color as the original. They vanish if you intentionally blink, and you can’t retrieve them.

Eidetic images aren’t perfect. One study identified German children who were eidetikers, showed them three pictures, then tested their recall; none of the children could name all the letters in a word that had appeared in one of the pictures.

The difference from "photographic" memory

If all this sounds photographic — after all, cameras may produce fuzzy images — there’s a key difference, notes Alan Searleman, a professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University and co-author of the college textbook, “Memory from a Broader Perspective.” Besides being hazy on details, eidetikers invent details that were never there. Cameras don’t make things up. Eidetikers “remember” things that aren’t true, like all human beings do.

Imagery does help memory: world memory champions who perform great feats like memorizing many digits of Pi practice diligently using special strategies that associate data with meaningful, memorable images. You can create your own personal mnemonics — the fancy word for memory devices. It helps if you use happy images, since we tend to block out unpleasant associations. Colorful images and images with three dimensions can be more vivid. Exaggerate the size of some parts of the image. Add a note of humor — a pig in a ballroom. Use known symbols like traffic signs.

Photographic memory is a trick

People with good memory skills understand how memory works and don’t let it deceive them. Trusting your memory completely means you’ve fallen for a trick — a trick you play on yourself. For example, we tend to believe that memories of an important event — sometimes called “flashbulb memories” — are especially accurate because they feel vivid and precise. On September 12, 2001, 54 students at Duke University in North Carolina recorded their memory of first hearing about the terrorist attacks of September 11 and of a recent everyday event. When they were tested 1, 6, and 36 weeks later, their memory of both September 11 and the everyday event diminished over time. However, they strongly believed that their September 11 memory was more accurate. Only a fool says, “I know exactly what I saw. I was there.”


March 16, 2020

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN