Does photographic memory exist? – American scientist

I developed what appears to be a photographic memory at the age of 16. Does this kind of memory really exist, and if so, how did I develop it?

Pierre Gordon, Scotland

Barry gordon, professor of neurology and cognitive science at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (and no link), offers an explanation:

The intuitive notion of “photographic” memory is that it is like a photograph: you can retrieve it at will from your memory and examine it in detail, zooming in on different parts. But a true photographic memory in this sense has never been proven.

Most of us have some sort of photographic memory, in that most people’s memory for visual material is much better and more detailed than our recall of most other types of material. For example, most of us remember a face much more easily than the name associated with that face. But it’s not really a photographic memory; it just shows us the normal difference between memory types.

Even visual memories that seem to come close to the photographic ideal are far from truly photographic. These memories seem to result from a combination of innate abilities, combined with zealous study and familiarity with material, such as the Bible or the fine art.

Sorry to disappoint more, but even incredible memory in one area, like vision, is no guarantee of good memory across the board. It must be rare, if it happens at all. A memory Olympics winner, for example, still had to keep sticky notes on the fridge to remember what she had to do during the day.

So how is an exceptional, perhaps photographic, memory born? It depends on a multitude of factors, including our genetics, brain development, and our experiences. It is difficult to disentangle memory capacities that appear early on from those cultivated by interest and training. Most people who have shown truly extraordinary memories in a field have seemed to have them all their lives and have refined them further through practice.

Different parts of the brain mature at different times, and adolescence is a major time for such changes. It is possible that Mr Gordon’s ability took a big leap towards his 16th birthday, but it is also possible that he did not notice it until then. Mr. Gordon may want to take some formal tests, to see how good his memory is and in what areas. Then we can debate the question of nature based on stronger evidence.

Michael E. Marquez