The Photographic Memory Hoax: Science Has Never Proven It’s Real, So Why Do We Keeping Acting Like It Is?

The only evidence of photographic memory is a flimsy study from 1970, so why do we still buy into it? Ricardo Mestre, CC BY-ND 2.0

Nestled deep in our conventional wisdom is the notion that the absolute pinnacle of cognitive power is the photographic memory. People who display the superhuman ability to recall names, dates, and facts, minor details, major events, and each factoid in between, are endowed with a gift we mere mortals can only hope to approach. The problem is, it’s all a bunch of nonsense.

In the entire history of scientific research, there exists one documented case of someone even coming close to having something resemble a photographic memory. She was a Harvard student. Her name was Elizabeth. One day in 1970, the scientist Charles Stromeyer III showed Elizabeth’s left eye a collection of 10,000 dots. The next day, he showed her right eye a second collection of 10,000 dots. From those two images, her brain melded together a three-dimension image, known as a stereogram. Stromeyer published his findings in the journal Nature, and promptly went on to marry Elizabeth and never study her again.

Encoding, Storage, Recall

In the near four and half decades since Stromeyer’s original findings, science has moved no closer to finding someone who lives up to the promise of photographic memory. To do so would mean finding a person that can recall memories as vividly as perception itself — indeed, looking through her memories, as if scanning a photograph she holds in her hands. The most compelling evidence to-date (which is to say, not very compelling at all) are anecdotal cases of people with exceptionally strong memories, who tend to specialize in one form of memory recall.

The science may have something to say. When our brain forms a memory, it has its own set of standard operating procedures. First, it encodes the memory. It takes the abstract sensory inputs of, say, a game-winning home run — the crack of the bat, the smell of the grass, the final stomp on home plate — and it gives each part a label depending on the sense that was used to record it. Then it stores the memory, filing away each label in the proper “folder” for safekeeping. When it needs to access that memory, or “recall” it, where it’s filed and how it’s labeled make the job much easier.

Not all memories are encoded, however. Short-term memories that require quick access are merely thought to “hook” onto existing long-term memories, which have been encoded. Think of them like Post-It notes tagged to file folders, easily removed after they’ve served their purpose.

But while science more or less has the broad strokes of memory covered, the finer points —the molecular perspective of memory encoding, storage, and recall — are much more slippery. When it comes to photographic memory, the evidence against it is surprisingly compelling.

In 2010, researchers from Knox College and Kansas State University showed that mental representations about photographs aren’t encoded in the same way that the pictures themselves are recalled. In other words, if photographic memories existed, people would recall their memories “photographically” the same way they recall actual photos they were told to look at. Unfortunately, they don’t.

“This would explain why the whole of a particular scene memory is difficult to assemble from the sum of its detailed parts,” the researchers wrote.

Memories Formerly Known As AJ

All this science mumbo jumbo still largely falls on deaf ears, unfortunately. Photographic memories are said to have popped up all around the world, among people who each possess a unique and specialized knack for memory. Take Jill Price.

Well-known in the research world as AJ, for her participation in a University of California, Irvine, research project into memory, Price has the ability to remember every day of her life since childhood. Her case was an anomaly. As author and memory champion and expert Joshua Foer once wrote, “Such people weren't supposed to exist.” In a famous interview with Diane Sawyer, Price correctly names the exact date the television show MASH went off the air. As an added bonus, she described the weather that day, too.

But not even Price’s encyclopedic knowledge has been described as an example of photographic memory. However, it did spur the introduction of a new condition, which scientists have called “hyperthymesia” — or, the extreme ability to recall autobiographical information. See, Price’s memory doesn’t offer instantaneous recall of discreet, fine-toothed details. She gets the broad strokes.

Owing to the findings of the Knox/KSU study, Price may remember what the weather was like when MASH bid viewers farewell, but that “photograph” is just a picture of a timeline. And just her own timeline, too. When she was once asked to reproduce a long list of words verbatim, she missed several. In reality, the ability is not one of memory, but of personality. And it’s what makes hyperthymesia unique: People with the condition obsess over their own lives, instantly recruiting memories from their pasts and often to a destructive degree, as not all memories are pleasant.

Cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, who detailed Price’s story for Wired, explains that while he has never encountered someone like Price, her feats do not reflect the existence of photographic memory. The way memories form — scattershot and seemingly at random — coupled with the fact that science has yet to replicate Charles Stromeyer’s original findings on his soon-to-be wife in 1970, paint a picture that, while compelling, is apparently easily forgetful in the public eye.

“The type of memory system we have — in technical terms, context-dependent rather than location-addressable — has been around for several hundred million years,” Marcus wrote. “The existence of a human brain that works completely differently is astronomically unlikely.”

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