Eidetic memory

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Eidetic memory (pron.: /ˈdɛtɪk/), commonly referred to as photographic memory, is a psychological or medical term, popularly defined as the ability to recall images, sounds or objects in memory with extreme precision. The word eidetic, referring to extraordinarily detailed and vivid recall not limited to, but especially of, visual images, comes from the Greek word εἶδος (pronounced [êːdos], eidos, "seen").[1]



While people with photographic memory will very precisely recall visual information such as a newspaper clip from ten years ago, a person with eidetic memory is not limited to merely visual recall – theoretically they can recall other sensory information including auditory, tactile, gustatory and olfactory. Many discussions combine eidetic memory with photographic memory, because the distinction between the two is still in the theoretical stages since most of the complex tasks the brain completes can't be documented by current research. While people with photographic memory will likely have complete control of their recall, a person with eidetic memory will likely have little control over the recall of many memories due to the overload of sensory information such as feelings, sounds, smell and physical body responses. In some cases the attempt at recalling specific details can be painful as they attempt to search through all the collected data, and the interruption of other memories that are just as strong.

The distinction between photographic memory and eidetic memory is simple. Perfect visual recall is photographic memory such as reading a newspaper once and remembering it 10 years later as mentioned above. While eidetic memory is recalling more than just the visual information. It is common for eidetic memory possessing individuals to confuse the dates and times of past events due to the perception that their memories are more recent due to the information stored and recalled. Individuals with eidetic memory can seem lost, distant, aloof or not in the present in the moment. They tend to have a harder time recalling visual only information as their brains don't isolate or divide information as important or unimportant as if there is no filter on the information stored. While they can succeed with education it takes more energy and learning tools must be found early on. It is as if they see everything and store every bit of information that is possible. People with eidetic memory will often recall memories from when they were a baby, and in early childhood easier than those with normal or even photographic memory.

Eidetic memory can possibly cause problems with sleeping,and dreaming. Since the memories are stored differently with eidetic memory, distinguishing between the dream state and the awake state can become difficult. Often times dreams are remembered as if they were actual events. Waking up can also become difficult as the person sees themselves completing daily routines just as clearly in a dream as they do when awake. Nightmares are equally as dangerous causing fear as realistically in a dream as it does in while awake. This can lead to physiological disorders if the true nature of eidetic memory isn't found during therapy sessions. The lack of understanding, research, and standardization of tests with what types of memory a person can possess can leave people confused and thinking that they may have a mental disorder when they just process information differently.

Some people who generally have a good memory claim to have eidetic memory. However, there are distinct differences in the manner in which information is processed. In some cases even people who have photographic memory claim to have eidetic memory not fully understanding the difference. Having good memory is usually a sign that a person does not have eidetic memory. People who have a generally capable memory often use mnemonic devices (such as division of an idea into enumerable elements) to retain information while those with eidetic memory remember every specific detail about the event, such as the temperature, how the person was standing, their non verbal cues, what the person was wearing, how they felt about the situation, etc. They may recall an event with greater detail while those with a different memory remember daily routines rather than specific details that may have interrupted a routine. However, this process is generally most evident when those with eidetic memory make an effort to remember such details.

Skeptical views

Much of the current popular controversy surrounding eidetic memory results from an over-application of the term to almost any example of extraordinary memory skill. The existence of extraordinary memory skills is reasonably well-documented, and appears to result from a combination of innate skills, learned tactics, and extraordinary knowledge bases (one can remember more of what one understands than one can of meaningless or unconnected information). Technically, though, eidetic memory means memory for a sensory event that is as accurate as if the person were still viewing, or hearing, the original object or event. Almost all claims of "eidetic memory" fall well outside this narrow definition.[citation needed] A handful of recent studies have suggested that there may be a few, rare individuals who are capable of a limited amount of eidetic recall.[citation needed] This recall is theorized to be essentially 'unprocessed' sensory memory of raw sensory events (i.e. "raw" images devoid of the additional (usually automatic) perceptual processing, which in normal memory inseparably attaches to the image information about the object's identity and meaning). The documented eidetic abilities, however, appear to be far more circumscribed, and far less common than popularly imagined.

The American cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky, in his book The Society of Mind (1988), considered reports of eidetic memory to be an "unfounded myth".[2]

An example of extraordinary memory abilities being ascribed to eidetic memory comes from the popular interpretations of Adriaan de Groot's classic experiments into the ability of chess Grandmasters to memorize complex positions of chess pieces on a chess board. Initially it was found that these experts could recall surprising amounts of information, far more than non-experts, suggesting eidetic skills. However, when the experts were presented with arrangements of chess pieces that could never occur in a game, their recall was no better than the non-experts, implying that they had developed an ability to organize certain types of information, rather than possessing innate eidetic ability.

Strong scientific skepticism about the existence of eidetic memory was fueled around 1970 by Charles Stromeyer who studied his future wife Elizabeth, who claimed that she could recall poetry written in a foreign language that she did not understand years after she had first seen the poem. She also could, apparently, recall random dot patterns with such fidelity as to combine two patterns into a stereoscopic image.[3][4] She remains the only person documented to have passed such a test. However, the methodology of the testing procedures used is questionable (especially given the extraordinary nature of the claims being made)[5] as is the fact that the researcher married his subject, and that the tests have never been repeated (Elizabeth has consistently refused to repeat them)[6] raises further concerns. Recently there has been a renewal of interest in the area, with more careful controls and far less spectacular results.[citation needed]

A. R. Luria wrote a famous account, Mind of a Mnemonist, of a subject with a remarkable memory, S. V. Shereshevskii; among various extraordinary feats, he could memorize lengthy lists of random words and recall them perfectly decades later. Luria believed the man had effectively unlimited recall; Shereshevskii is believed by some[who?] to be, like Kim Peek, a prodigious savant. Shereshevskii used memorization techniques where he "arranged" objects along a specific stretch of Gorky Road and went back and "picked" them up one by one. He missed an egg once because he claims he placed it by a white picket fence and did not see it when he went back for it. This is an example of a trained memory that uses the method of loci rather than an eidetic or photographic memory.

Further evidence supporting this skepticism towards the existence of eidetic memories is given by a non-scientific event: The World Memory Championships. This annual competition in different memory disciplines is based nearly entirely on visual tasks (9 of 10 events are displayed visually and the tenth event is presented by audio). Since the champions can win lucrative prizes (the total prize money for the World Memory Championships 2010 is US$90,000), it should attract people who can beat those tests easily by reproducing visual images of the presented material during the recall. But in fact not a single memory champion has ever (the event has taken place since 1990) been reported to have an eidetic memory. Instead, without exception, all winners call themselves mnemonists (see below) and rely on using mnemonic strategies, mostly the method of loci.[citation needed]

Claims of eidetic memory

Big Ben on a rainy evening in London, drawn entirely on the basis of memory by Stephen Wiltshire.

With the questionable exception of Elizabeth (discussed above), as of 2008, no one claiming to have long-term eidetic memory has been able to prove this in scientific tests.[6] There are a number of individuals with extraordinary memory who have been labeled eidetickers, but many use mnemonics and other, non-eidetic memory enhancing exercises.

Prodigious savants

In popular culture

Television characters with eidetic memories include Dr. Douglas Howser M.D. from Doogie Howser M.D., Special Agent Fox Mulder from The X-Files, Professor X from X-Men, Zack from Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego, Max Guevara from Dark Angel, Jessica Fletcher from Murder She Wrote, Victoria Sinclair and her uncle Sir George Sinclair from 2008 TV movie The 39 Steps, Bane from Batman, Detective Adrian Monk from Monk, Jimmy Neutron from The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron, Dr. Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds, Dr. Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap, Dr. Lexie Grey from Grey's Anatomy, Dr. Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory, Percival Rose from Nikita, Symbologist Robert Langdon from Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code and The Lost Symbol, Ingrid Third from Fillmore!, Shawn Spencer from Psych, Olivia Dunham from Fringe, Myka Bering from Warehouse 13, Mozzie from White Collar, Olive Doyle from Disney's A.N.T. Farm, Kes and Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager, Spock from Star Trek: The Original Series, Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5, Brick Heck from The Middle, Charlie Andrews from Heroes, Mike Ross from Suits, and Carrie Wells from Unforgettable.

In Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events series, one of the three protagonists, Klaus Baudelaire, is an avid reader and amateur researcher with an eidetic memory. He virtually remembers everything that he reads from books of any kind, even learned many languages. His knowledge and resources often help his other siblings, Violet and Sunny, to escape from dangerous situations i.e. Count Olaf, the primary antagonist of the series.

In the Swedish Millennium series (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo et al.) by Stieg Larsson (and its accompanying films), the hacker heroine Lisbeth Salander has an eidetic memory.[11] In the movie Good Will Hunting, starring Matt Damon, the main character, Will Hunting, is said to be possessing both an extraordinary IQ and an eidetic memory; demonstrated at the bar scene where he confronts a plagiarist.[citation needed]

Significant parts of the plot of Small Gods by Terry Pratchett depend on the hyperthymestic, eidetic memory of the novice Brutha. He remembers every moment of his life in perfect detail, down to the precise location and timing of individual footsteps. He cannot read, but he can nevertheless make perfect reproductions of documents from memory because he remembers the shapes of the letters. When he witnesses a disreputable action and is ordered to forget it, he does not understand the order as he has no concept of "forgetting". When asked what is the first thing that he can remember, he replies "There was a bright light, and then someone hit me".

The novel My Idea of Fun by author Will Self features a protagonist with a powerful eidetic memory, and this is explored extensively by Self.[12] In this novel, the eidetic capabilities of the "Eidetiker" greatly exceed those described in this article.

In keeping with their unusual style, Autechre named track 7 from Confield 'Eidetic Casein' (literally translated, meaning 'photographic milk-proteins').

In Thomas Harris's 1981 novel Red Dragon, protagonist Will Graham is explicitly identified as having an eidetic memory rivaling with Hannibal Lecter's.

See also


  1. ^ "Eidetic". American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed.. 2000. http://www.bartleby.com/61/91/E0059100.html. Retrieved 2007-12-12.
  2. ^ Minsky, Marvin (1998). Society of Mind. Simon & Schuster. p. 153. ISBN 978-0-671-65713-0. http://books.google.com/?id=LO_LAUFpJ3cC&dq=society+of+mind&q=photographic#search_anchor. "...we often hear about people with 'photographic memories' that enable them to quickly memorize all the fine details of a complicated picture or a page of text in a few seconds. So far as I can tell, all of these tales are unfounded myths, and only professional magicians or charlatans can produce such demonstrations."
  3. ^ Stromeyer, C. F., Psotka, J. (1970). "The detailed texture of eidetic images". Nature 225 (5230): 346–349. doi:10.1038/225346a0. PMID 5411116.
  4. ^ Thomas, N.J.T. (2010). Other Quasi-Perceptual Phenomena. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  5. ^ Blakemore, C., Braddick, O., & Gregory, R.L. (1970). Detailed Texture of Eidetic Images: A Discussion. Nature, 226, 1267–1268.
  6. ^ a b Foer, Joshua (April 27, 2006). "Kaavya Syndrome: The accused Harvard plagiarist doesn't have a photographic memory. No one does.". Slate. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2006/04/kaavya_syndrome.single.html. Retrieved December 16, 2012.
  7. ^ Treffert, Darold (1989). Extraordinary People: understanding "idiot savants". New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-015945-6. http://www.daroldtreffert.com/extraordinary.htm.
  8. ^ Martin, David. Savants: Charting "islands of genius", CNN broadcast September 14, 2006
  9. ^ Kim Peek: savant who was the inspiration for the film Rain Man
  10. ^ "Pi World Ranking List". http://pi-world-ranking-list.com/lists/memo/index.html. Retrieved 12 February 2010.
  11. ^ Larsson, Stieg (2009). The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. p. 462. ISBN 978-0-307-47347-9. "'Lisbeth, you have a photographic memory,' Mikael exclaimed in surprise. 'That's why you can read a page of the investigation in ten seconds.'"
  12. ^ Self, Will (1993). My Idea of Fun. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 165. ISBN 0-7475-1591-3. http://books.google.nl/books?id=LqiqRt5uf4sC&lpg=PA199&pg=PA165#v=onepage&q&f=false. "I went into a full-blown eidetic trance."