Doctor Strange. Sherlock. The girl with the dragon tattoo from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Pop culture just loves giving us headline heroes with an apparently superhuman ability – remembering everything they experience, even fleetingly, in perfect detail. A photographic memory.
What is a photographic memory?
Hate to break it to you, but there’s no such thing as photographic memory – not in real life, anyway. To date, there have been no actual cases – zero, nil, nada, bupkis – that have stood up to rigorous scientific testing.
The closest we get in real life is eidetic memory. The term is often used interchangeably with “photographic memory,” but in fact, they’re quite different.
Eidetic memory is more like one of those optical illusions where you stare at a few squiggles then close your eyes and see Einstein – but with a few key differences.
What is an eidetic memory?
Eidetic memory – coming from the Greek for “visible form” – is “the formal name given to what people in everyday life called photographic memory,” writes cognitive psychologist Professor Annette Taylor in her Encyclopedia of Human Memory.
“This is because this type of memory is as clear and detailed as a photographic image.”
If you have an eidetic memory, it probably doesn’t mean you can, say, remember the color of a beetle walking across a table in your neighbor’s garden on April 17, 2008. What you will be able to do, though, is to see an image, hear a sound, or smell an aroma as if it’s still in front of you, for often just a short while, after it’s gone away.
And we really do mean "see," by the way – studies on people who have eidetic memories, sometimes known as eidetikers, have shown that subjects' eyes move about in real-time as if they're still looking at the now-removed image they're describing. Ask an eidetiker about something that happened last Thursday, and they'll likely answer you in the past tense; ask them about the photo they were just looking at, and they may well answer in the present tense.
Is eidetic memory perfect?
Eidetic memory is very, very good – but it’s not perfect.
“Eidetic memory images are close to perceptual ones in their brightness and distinctness,” explains a recent paper on memory development, published in the Frontline Social Sciences and History Journal.
“After a single perception of the material and very little mental processing, the child continues to ‘see’ the material, and restores it perfectly,” the authors continue. “Even after a long time, when recalling something perceived earlier, it is as if the child sees it again and can describe it in all the details.”
Now, there are a couple of things to note there. Firstly, while the common perception of eidetic or photographic memory is that it’s an automatic, involuntary thing, in reality, eidetic recall requires time. Subjects are often given a good 30 seconds of careful study in lab experiments. Even then, subjects rarely hang on to the image for very long, and their memories are definitely not infallible.
“Eidetikers' memories are clearly remarkable, but they are rarely perfect,” explain Lilienfeld et al in Psychology: From Enquiry to Understanding. “Their memories often contain minor errors, including information that was not present in the original visual stimulus […] even eidetic memory often appears to be reconstructive.”
Who can have an eidetic memory?
Eidetic memories are incredibly rare and seem to be scattered fairly randomly.
They’re not known to be correlated with any other trait – except one. You may have noticed the quote above talked about “children” rather than “people.” That’s because, as they explain, “eidetic memory is an age-related phenomenon […] Children who have it at preschool age usually lose [the] ability when they go to school.”
Why this is, exactly, is not really known – studies generally find between eight and twelve percent of children exhibit eidetic memory, Taylor explains, but that number dwindles to virtually zero by adulthood.
“Children possess far more capacity for eidetic imagery than adults, suggesting that a developmental change (such as acquiring language skills) may disrupt the potential for eidetic imagery,” says neurobiologist Andy Hudmon in his book Learning and Memory.
Another hypothesis is that the loss of eidetic memory comes with the development of more abstract thought. The idea, scientific skeptic Brian Dunning explained, was that younger children “have not yet developed advanced thought processes such as the ability to store images more efficiently as conceptual abstractions. Thus, eidetikers' brains are forced to inefficiently store complete images, and this would be considered indicative of developmental immaturity.”
Recently, though, that theory has been thrown into doubt by new research. “In short,” Dunning concludes, “how and why it happens, and why it's found only in prepubescent children, still remains elusive.”
“There's strong evidence that some children have it, but no evidence that it's ever survived into adulthood,” he wrote.
But perhaps the most convincing explanation, some experts think, is the simplest: would you really want to remember everything you’ve seen in your entire life?
Can I get an eidetic memory?
As with so many things that toddlers can do without difficulty, it’s tempting to think we must be able to do it ourselves. Unfortunately, it turns out eidetikers are born, not made – and since the definition includes not needing mnemonic devices, you can’t really get around it that way.
Don’t feel too bad though – you may not be able to get an eidetic memory, but there’s plenty of evidence that people can train their brains to remember things to a pretty remarkable degree.
“For example, many expert chess players possess a remarkable capacity to record the position of chess pieces at any point from a game,” wrote Hudmon. “The ability to retain an accurate image of the chessboard permit these players to play multiple boards at a time – even while they are blindfolded!”
Yet even these feats are not evidence of eidetic memory, Hudmon explained. Chess grandmasters may be fantastic at memorizing chessboard patterns, but when researchers showed them randomly generated patterns that can’t exist in a real game, the experts were no better than the noobs. They didn’t have amazing memories – they were just really into chess.
“What we're left with is a lack of compelling evidence that eidetic memory exists at all among healthy adults, and no evidence that photographic memory exists,” Dunning wrote. “But there's a common theme running through many of these research papers, and that's that the difference between ordinary memory and exceptional memory appears to be one of degree.”
“Some people have better memories than others, but it could well be that (with the possible unverified exception of a few standout individuals) there is no such thing as 'superpower" memory',” he added. “So feel a bit better about your ordinary, non-super memory; it turns out it's not that bad after all.”
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.