Is There Such a Thing as Photographic Memory?

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS
June 26, 2019

Photographs are taken to capture a specific moment for all eternity. A photograph allows one to revisit a certain location, situation, or time period at some point in the future. No matter how much time has passed, one can take comfort in the fact that a photograph will stay suspended in time. The features, colors, and specifics of the photograph are forever unchanging, but can sometimes deliver a magical, hidden detail when least expected. 

photo memory

A photographic memory utilizes the concept of a photograph and applies it to memory, recognition, and recall. A photographic memory refers to a person who can conjure a memory as if from a photograph. They can look at something, mentally snap a picture, and review the picture in their mind to provide painstaking details about it for weeks thereafter.

Photographic memory is the capability to remember a picture from memory after studying it for a very brief period of time. A person with photographic memory will be able to remember extensive pages of material in vast detail. They can momentary view pieces of paper adorned with numbers, texts, words, and sentences and will then be able to recall and recite with precise detail for a long time afterwards.

If you have ever known a person who professes to have a photographic memory, you are probably well aware that they can instantaneously draw attention from far and wide, immediately becoming somewhat of a circus act. Bystanders will either watch with wonder and awe, marveling at this great talent, or will desperately try to disprove that this wondrous talent actually exists. Many individuals have acknowledged that they have a photographic memory, but is there such a thing?

The concept of a photographic memory has never been proved and remains somewhat of a popular myth. The closest thing to a photographic memory is an eidetic memory. A person with an eidetic memory can perceive memories like photographs for several minutes. A person will store a mental image of a memory like a photograph and will then be able to recall the picture in great detail a few minutes later. Most often, the recall is comprehensive and precise, although it is never perfect and can be subject to alterations or embellishments. A person with eidetic memory commonly describes the ability to see an afterimage after the original image has been removed. However, this image will grow fainter and eventually fade moments after the initial image has been removed.

Everyone possesses an eidetic memory; however it generally lasts under one second for the majority of individuals and only lasts several seconds or minutes longer for others. A photographic memory is the ability to recall a memory for a much longer period of time. To be classified as a photographic memory, an eidetic memory needs to be converted into a short-term or long-term memory.

Debate regarding photographic memory contends that people who remember things for long periods of time are especially adept at memory enhancing techniques, such as association or chunking memories together. A photographic or eidetic memory cannot be associated with any cognitive tricks or mnemonics to be classified as such. Researchers are still unsure if eidetic or photographic memories are linked to intelligence. Despite the fact that there is no proof that photographic memory exists, or that it is even possible, researchers continue to explore the topic. Research attempts to address those individuals who vehemently contend that they possess this unique ability.

A person with a photographic memory contends that they can close their eyes and envision a photograph that may have been taken days or weeks earlier. This type of memory is difficult to prove, as it is subjective and other variables such as cognitive or memory enhancement tools cannot be studied and accounted for. So, for now, there is no such thing as a photographic memory. However, research is ongoing and may eventually reveal a whole other photograph.

Tracy Smith, LPC, NCC, ACS

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.

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