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Debunked: Is it possible to have a photographic memory?

It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. You’d never have to double-check to see if you locked the back door or not. Did you?

Exactly what it would be like to have a photographic memory.
Exactly what it would be like to have a photographic memory.
Image: camera eye via Shutterstock

IN THIS SERIES, TheJournal.ie takes a look at an urban myth, old wives’ tale, or something that your mammy told you years ago to see if there’s any truth in it.

Having photographic memory would make most people’s lives a lot easier.

You would never have to take notes, and instead simply skim the pages you needed to remember.

When your parents call to say that so-and-so who used to live in Number 35 but moved abroad in the late ’80s passed away, you would know exactly who they are talking about and what so-and-so was wearing the last time you saw them.

Did you leave the cooker on? No, you categorically know that you didn’t.

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Is this you right now? Sorry for putting that thought into your head. (Image Credit: Imgur/BBC)

While some people have an extraordinary ability to memorise text or events, it’s highly unlikely they would be able to recall anything with 100 per cent accuracy after just a split second of observation, the way in which photographic memory is portrayed in fiction.

It’s simply down to how our brain stores information.

Memory is not simply recalling the past

Dr Fred Cummins, Co-Director of the Cognitive Science Programme in UCD, explained that it is important to remember that memory is not simply the ability to recall the past.

“There are people who can recall certain details of a scene better than others,” he told TheJournal.ie, “For example, some are better with text than others, and under the right circumstances and can remember a body of writing very accurately.

“Others can recall details that would be so unimportant about certain situations that to others they would be immediately jettisoned.”

Whichever form of memory we have, its only a stored interpretation of a past situation, rather than a freeze-frame:

“The eye is not a camera. It is not taking pictures, it is making sense of a scene.”

There are other forms of memory, Dr Cummins explained, including muscle memory, used when playing sports or knowing that you have to push your front door in a certain way to open it, and others which have been developed over thousands of years for remembering long stories.

Greek literature, such as Homer’s epics, were originally passed down orally through the generations. One method they developed to memorise these incredibly long pieces was the Method of Loci, which can help your brain to recall information that it usually would be.

This is where different parts of a story are associated with different parts of a physical object. Entering and moving around a house is often used as an example, associating different rooms with different verses or chapters.

No simple answer

While such methods can produce extraordinary feats of memory, they require a conscious effort to do so.

Dr Cummins said that there is no simple answer to the plausibility of photographic, and no scientific study has proven anyone to have it.

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There have been examples of people who have displayed prestigious talent in various feats of recall, for example a journalist studied by Soviet neuropsychologist Alexander Luria in the 1920s.

Solomon V. Shereshevsky was able to recall speeches word-for-word without taking notes and complex sets of numbers after studying them for just a few minutes.

This amazing ability seems to have been due in part to his severe synesthesia, a condition where senses are overlap. For example, some people might instantly associate certain words with certain colours.

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How one person with spatial-sequence synesthesia associates different months with a position and with a colour. (Image Credit: Kelley via Flickr/Creative Commons)

For Shereshevsky, all five of his senses were intertwined, meaning his memory could be trigged by a number of different cues.

Do you think you have synesthesia? You can test yourself here, although be warned that it is in no way a scientific trial.

Is there a myth you’d like debunked? Email nicky@thejournal.ie

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About the author:

Nicky Ryan

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