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Photographic Memory – Is It for Real?
Photographic memory or eidetic memory is thought to be found in 10% of the population and is considered a rare occurrence. This type of memory is controversial and poorly defined at present. It is believed to be found in some children, but they tend to lose this memory as they enter adulthood. Some neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and linguists define photographic memory as a person’s ability to accurately recall images, sounds, or objects as well as large amounts of information and to do so quickly. Think of it as a kind of xerox memory. You may think that would be an advantage, but in reality, in many cases, it is not. Too often you pick up too much information that is irrelevant and can block the meaning of what you are seeing. My dad had a photographic memory with an IQ of 160. He could recite entire pages of text and tell you what page he was on but had little understanding of the deeper meaning. On the other hand, I have cerebral connections between the mathematical centers of the right brain and the frontal eye fields. It allows me to see the equations as a picture or graph in my mind. I found this useful in that I don’t have to remember a complicated equation as I can drift from the mental image I see. This has been an advantage in physics, chemistry and biology classes.
Many people claim to have some form of photographic memory, but in fact this is not the case. Most of these people actually use mnemonic devices to quickly retain information. Mnemonic devices mean that you play a game with the information with numbers, various shapes or positions in space and reconstruct the information from that image. This is not a photographic memory. Photographic memory remembers everything about the event with great precision as it occurs. No games in progress. This is what makes it difficult to determine whether an individual actually has an eidetic memory. How much an individual has learned interferes with the actual memory event. Eidetic memory must be fast and precise.
Unfortunately, the photographic memory controversy stems from the overuse of this term to refer to unusual memory capacity in general. Most unusual memory skills have been observed to come from learned skills and natural abilities as well as high level reading ability and not perfect recall. Eidetic recall is supposed to be unprocessed by the brain, which is very different from ordinary memory which is processed and interpreted and has meaning attached to it. Early studies of professional chess players have been misinterpreted. I’m sure you know that chess players can remember every move in a game and can memorize complex moves to the point of knowing every possible move. It was once thought to be photographic in nature. However, other studies have swept away this myth. Researchers placed chess pieces in places that were illegal moves and found that these chess players had no better memory than the average person. The professional chess player has ways of organizing chess moves in memory that made them look like photographic memories. Most people are able to memorize complicated chess moves if given enough time using an alphanumeric code.
There is no doubt that some people have incredible memories, but eidetic memory is an extremely rare occurrence. In the strictest sense, eidetic memory refers to the perfect recall of certain information without mental processing of any kind or the use of mnemonic devices. There is no doubt that using mnemonic devices can greatly increase your memory capacity, so use these devices. I often provide various devices to my students to ease the burden of memorizing large amounts of data. Simple diagrams with numbers/letters can contain a lot of information in a condensed form.
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