What’s captured in a photograph can never change. Every time you look at a picture you’ll see the same images and colors.
The term photographic memory brings to mind an ability to remember exactly what has been seen for all time. However, memory simply doesn’t work that way.
There’s an ability that some people may have to capture visual images momentarily. This ability is referred to as eidetic memory.
Eidetic memory is thought to occur in a small percentage of children, although even this assumption is far from conclusive.
Someone with a well-honed eidetic memory will be able to continue to see, in their mind’s eye, an accurate visual of something they have just witnessed or been shown. They’ll be able to hold onto this intact image in visual form for several seconds to several minutes.
After that, the details in eidetic memories may change, fade completely, or be captured in short-term memory, where it may again fade, change, or be captured in long-term memory.
Eidetic memory is thought to dissipate completely in the population, as one nears adulthood.
Eidetic vs. photographic memory
Some people use the terms photographic memory and eidetic memory interchangeably, but these two phenomena are different. People who believe they have photographic memories say they can recall visuals for very long periods of time, or permanently, without alterations in detail.
There’s little scientific consensus on either eidetic memory or photographic memory. Both are hard phenomena to test conclusively.
Whether photographic memory is attainable or not, there are strategies for supporting your brain to remember more of what you see. And that is a very good thing.
The short answer is probably not.
Once upon a time, it was thought that only around 60 percent of the population were visual learners, meaning that they were able to retain knowledge and memory obtained via visual stimuli.
The current conventional wisdom is that all — or practically all — people obtain knowledge and memory this way.
Visual learning differs theoretically from photographic memory, but may be a necessary element in its occurrence. That is assuming that photographic memory is a real thing.
People who believe themselves to have photographic memory say they can look at a photograph, scene, image, or other form of visual stimuli and retain that image exactly as it appeared for an extended period of time.
While we do know that the brain has a very large capacity for retaining visual, long-term memories, this type of claim is hard to substantiate definitively.
Certainly, there are people who have better photographic recall than others. Some early studies correlated photographic memory with intelligence, although this is unproven.
People with eidetic memory are known as eidetikers. Eidetikers are sometimes tested via a technique known as the Picture Elicitation Method.
This method utilizes an unfamiliar visual prompt, such as a painting or photograph. The person with eidetic memory is allowed to study the visual for around 30 seconds. It’s then removed. and the eidetiker is asked to recall exactly what they just saw.
Often the person will reference the visual in immediate terms, as if they’re still looking at it, and will let the researcher know what they still see. Eidetic images can be visually removed from memory by blinking. Once gone, they cannot be retrieved accurately.
In addition, the recall of eidetic images often shows gaps between what was seen and what is remembered. This indicates that the memory may be a reconstruction of what was seen, rather than an accurate and exact memory.
If you’re asked to recall a visual that you’re familiar with, such as a room in your home, you’ll be able to do so with a certain degree of accuracy.
Eidetic memories may in fact be generated the same way by the brain, and may not be photographic renditions at all.
There’s no scientific evidence that you can train your memory to become photographic. You can, however, train your brain to remember more.
Keeping your brain active is the best way to boost your memory.
Try mnemonic systems
Mnemonics use patterns of associations, letters, images, or ideas to help you remember something.
A simple mnemonic system might be to rhyme the name of a person you just met with a word you can easily recall. You would then remember the word when you wish to call up the person’s name.
Some mnemonic systems include:
- The loci method: This memory-boosting strategy dates back to the days of the Roman Empire and is also referred to as the memory palace. To try it, follow these steps:
- Think of the thing you want to remember and create a visual image of it.
- Create an association with the thing you wish to remember. For example, if you want to remember an address, visualize the written address on a front door that you visualize in exquisite detail, including the color, door knocker, and any other imagery.
- When you wish to recall the actual address, visualize the front door and the address should pop into your mind.
- Some people find that this system works best if the imagery they conjure up is extreme, irrational, bizarre, silly, or funny.
- The peg system: This system correlates things you know well, such as the alphabet, with things you wish to remember. It works by creating an association or a reminder. To do it:
- Generate a mental image of a peg which is labelled with a letter or number.
- Then hang what you want to remember on it.
Other memory boosters
Other tips to boost your memory include:
- learning a new language
- doing puzzles
- getting enough sleep
- reading books, newspapers, and magazine articles — the more challenging the better
- adding at least one vocabulary word to your repertoire each day
- doing aerobic exercise
Science hasn’t been able to prove the existence of actual photographic memory. It is possible that some children display a type of photographic memory recall known as eidetic memory, but this hasn’t been conclusively proven.
While it may not be possible to train your brain to have photographic memory, you can improve your memory through mnemonics and other techniques. Simple things like sleep and exercise also help boost memory.