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Photographic and Eidetic Memory: Pictures of Truth?

mrobbins's picture

        Eidetic and photographic memory, although slightly different concepts, generally refer to the ability to voluntarily recall or hallucinate viewed images with extreme detailed accuracy. Eidetic memory is the ability to voluntarily conjure a vivid mental image of a viewed scene, or object, including its color and textured spirit to a precise degree. These images are mentally projected in space as being sheer or transparent. Eidetic images are unlike ordinary images because the images do not change during eye movements and can be evoked for days to years after the original encounter with the specific scene. In contrast to eidetic memory, photographic memory is a more widespread dubious and cultural phenomenon in which a person has total recall of any image or scene, as a perfectly maintained image in the brain, after the initial viewing. Photographic memory popularly implies perfect memory. Eidetic memory is more commonly seen in children, while photographic memory pertains more to adults, and is rarely reported or studied outside of specific case studies. Therefore, photographic and eidetic memories are unusual and greatly debated feats of the normal limits of human visual and long-term memory.

          Eidetic memory is an ability most commonly possessed in children and geriatrics supposedly because of the ways in which scientists believe these images are mentally processed. As described above, eidetic memory is when a person is able to mentally hallucinate a viewed image with extensive detail. The image retains its actual coloring and texture, and does not move with general eye movements. Alan Searleman (2007), a professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University, states that eidetekers, or people who possess this talent, can be identified by staring at an image for 30 seconds and then claiming to still be able to see the image in front of them. They are able to examine the image as if it were still in front of them and use the present tense when answering questions concerning extremely specific details about the image. However, Searleman argues that eidetic images are not always perfectly represented. Eidetekers can add new details to the image or change some details, but to a much smaller degree than people who do not possess this capability. Searleman estimates that between 2-10 percent of children and less of the elderly have eidetic memory. He argues that this is because research has demonstrated that if a person verbalizes during the time they are viewing the image this inhibits the formation of an eidetic memory. Adults are more prone to both verbally and visually memorizing images while younger children tend to encode stimuli more visually. Therefore, it is possible that adults are able to formulate eidetic images but have learned to favor different and presumably more efficient ways to remember images. Overall, Searleman postulates that photographic memory does not exist, beyond being a generalized hyper-phenomenal term referring to absolute recall over long periods. Within this abstract idealization of photographic memory, eidetic memory may be a glistening of truthful insight into a maturing thought process that loses its applicability with age, probably by acquiring more efficient memory mechanisms.

         Strengthening this perspective, research on long-term memory in honeybees has found that these insects use potentially eidetic-like memory as a last resort when trying to distinguish stimuli (Giger & Srinivasan, 1995). Bees use orientation and spatial distribution cues preferentially during discrimination tasks. These findings mirror eidetic abilities in humans. Since children have only been conclusively shown to have eidetic faculties, this supports the proposal that eidetic imagery techniques are maladaptive and are not favored as the primary source of memory. Eidetic memory in childhood serves a useful purpose until better techniques and efficient cognitive processes are acquired. In humans, verbalizing things may promote relevant or important stimuli to be mentally ingrained, while honeybees may have the same effect with their reliance on orientation cues. This allows for slight variation in memory, but enhances other more effective, albeit less impressive, means than do eidetic or photographic memory. However, a few case studies stand out in regards to the legitimacy of eidetic and possibly photographic memory.

          A couple of studies specifically examined eidetic memory in children and in one adult and found evidence supporting the existence of this phenomenon within a small sample size. In 1964, Ralph Haber, conducted a study on elementary school children and identified about 4% of subjects, over a five year period, as possessing eidetic memory. He identified children as having eidetic memory if they moved their eyes in the appropriate directions when describing a previously seen picture. There was no factor of age, sex, or IQ on whether or not a person was considered to possess an eidetic memory (La Brecque, 1972). However, because Haber’s tests were not objective he designed a more direct experiment that would not be at risk for verbalizing behaviors or memory biases He sequentially showed two pictures to children, and when one image was eidetically super-imposed on the second, a face was formed. Four children named the face correctly, however it was possible that they guessed. Another researcher, Charles Stromeyer III, postulated that these tests were still not strict enough. He instead looked at a case study in which a 23-year-old female student, Elizabeth, at Harvard University claimed to have remarkable eidetic abilities. She claimed to be able to project leaves onto a barren tree and accurately recall a passage from Goethe, in original German, that she had read four years before she was identified. Similarly, to the tests used by Haber, Stromeyer, used images that superimposed on one another to form a third image. However, the images used in this study were stereograms presented to one eye. Elizabeth came in and viewed one image to one eye, and returned the next day to view the next stereogram in the other eye. When she eidetically recalled the first image while viewing the second, she successfully viewed the correct in-depth figure. This subject successfully took subsequent tasks such as re-conjuring a million-dot pattern after a four-hour interval. She was also able to recall an image so that, when looking at a dot pattern in one eye, she suppressed the present image and recalled a different pattern in the other eye in order to evoke a three-dimensional figure. Interestingly, Elizabeth claimed her mother possessed the same ability, insinuating that her, dare I say, photographic memory may have been a genetic trait. Generally, these investigations provide further support for the existence of eidetic memory being possible in a certain subset of the population while photographic memory, although specified and glorified, remains cast in the shadow of doubt associated with a case study. If one person has been shown to have so-called photographic memory, this does not translate to it being possible in other people in the population. Such findings encourage further exploration into a unique talent of one human being and simply pose the prospect of photographic memory being generalizable to the population as a whole. 

            Slate magazine (2006) published an article aimed at debunking the existence of photographic memory. The author, Joshua Foer, states that nobody actually has photographic memory even though many people claim to have such a memory. Foer acknowledges the case of Elizabeth, described above, but surreptitiously points out that the chief researcher involved in her case study, Charles Stromeyer III, married her and she was never tested for photographic memory again. This marriage combined with the fact that Elizabeth was never retested, and that nobody else since Elizabeth has demonstrated the same abilities, has made many psychologists doubt the viability of this study. Although, evidence is lacking for photographic memory, this does not mean that people with incredible memories do not exist. The author reaffirms the existence of eidetic memory, defining it as “a vivid afterimage that lingers in the mind’s eye for up to a few minutes before fading away.” Furthermore, eidetic memory, he says, is often confused with photographic memory, suggesting eidetic memory to be a real phenomenon while opposing the existence photographic memory. He states that even children with eidetic memory do not have perfect recall and take liberties. Foer, dives into further examples of people with incredible recall who were once thought to have real photographic memory. However, he debunks each case by concluding that such a photographic-like memory was merely the result of another condition. For example, a Russian journalist, S, was known for having a remarkable memory, but as it turned out, he was just especially good at formulating mnemonic devices. Mastering such a technique disguised, S, as someone with a coveted talent. Alas, his mystery was solved, allowing scientists to rest easy within the designated limits of human memory. Mnemonic devices are just useful, but apparently not phenomenally special. Another example described, was a woman named, AJ, who was able to remember everyday of her life. Even with such a fantastic ability, AJ was not deemed worth of carrying the title of possessing photographic memory. Instead, researchers had to label her with a disorder invented just for her, hyperthymestic syndrome. Going far enough to label someone as having a specific syndrome, illustrates the need for scientific society to diagnose whatever is outside the realm of “normal” as being a flaw or freakish in nature. Therefore, people who mirror having photographic memories, but do not actually have them, strengthens the arguments that photographic memory does not truly exist. Photographic memory may be more of a societal term coined for an unreachable ideal of human capacities. If these people have specific problems, or devices that make them deviate from the standard path, then perhaps everyone has implicit devices but we are confined by our “normalcy.” These flaws in others may thus, provide a gateway into extraordinary status.

            A man named, Stephen Wiltshire, is a shining example of the ways in which his astounding, and potentially photographic, memory is considered a product of his being autistic. Wiltshire, a true savant, is known for his ability to draw complex buildings and cityscapes after seeing them once. In 2005, he took a helicopter ride over Tokyo and then drew an intricate panoramic view of the cityscape on a 10-meter canvas. His ability to accurately recall scenes closely resembles the epitome of photographic memory. Wiltshire’s ability to translate his talent for memory into artwork has garnered him extensive recognition. However, he does not necessarily have a photographic memory as much as he has the ability to replicate a memory of a scene onto a canvas. This does not inherently imply that he is holistically conjuring a photographic image in his mind. In fact, he could be using a completely different technique. Perhaps, like journalist S, he is using mnemonic devices for the visual world. Wiltshire is also gifted in music. He has perfect pitch. It is extremely rare for savants to show proficiency in more than one area. Therefore, because music and pitch are not visual entities, it is possible that Wiltshire is indeed not using photographic but rather employing different manifestations of a specific skill that can generate near absolute recall of diverse stimuli. Wiltshire’s autism puts fourth a realm of possibilities stemming from the concept that his talents are examples of abilities from within disabilities. His ability is confined, or rather freed, from his disability. Are his skills compensatory mechanisms for other shortcomings, such as weak communication skills? His autism may prevent inhibition of certain internal processes that non-autistic people normally experience. This again leads to the idea that having such an extensive memory, photographic or not, is not specifically adaptive because scientists believe his autism accounts for his supernatural “defect.” Remembering such scenes to such an exact degree is presumably taxing on the brain and well as an inefficient process. Conjuring a near perfect image of something may be a less efficient way to remember things instead of learning a tactic or pattern that only captures pertinent information. Remembering things based on relevance in lieu of entirety saves space and retains information applicable to a wide range of circumstances. Remembering scenes or stimuli to an extensively specific extent decreases that memory’s usefulness in other circumstances, which could otherwise benefit from an overall relevant association, from such a memory, in terms of the mind eliciting a behaviorally appropriate response in a similar situation or scene.

            Recent research has built on these findings and case studies by further investigating how the brain retains visual memories. One such study explored role of layer 6 of the V2 visual cortex in object-recognition memory (ORM). It found that this layer of neurons was critical for ORM (Lopez-Aranda et al., 2009). Specifically, these researchers discovered that the expression of the protein regulator of G protein signaling, RGS-14, modified a normally short-term ORM into a long-term memory. Elimination of these neurons resulted in the loss of normal and enhanced ORM capabilities. However, this study was highly flawed, despite its intriguing findings. The findings of this study are inconsistent with current data. The V2 layer of the visual cortex has otherwise been shown to purely respond to places on the retina and furthermore, objects are not retinotopic. Nevertheless, the results presented in this study caught the attention of the media. The media made the leap that these data could eventually allow scientists to design a pill to induce photographic memory abilities in people. These claims were Popular Science’s (2009) answer to pulling all-nighters. They exclaimed, “There’ll be no more need to cram for tests the night before; you can do it months before. No need to ask for directions again!” This article made the leap from object-recognition to photographic memory, even though the cited study did not support this implication. Overall, the combination of this flawed study and its glorification in the media demonstrates society’s quest to answer the so-called “big fluffy questions.” Is the pursuit of science really about acing the SAT? Will we never again have to suffer the embarrassment of forgetting a person’s name? In many ways, the ramifications of research are subject to popular demand. What is science really even after if it cannot solve all of our problems? What use is learning about phenomenon within us, and the world, if it serves no selfish purpose? Is the pursuit of knowledge inherently selfish? What ends are we trying to meet if all goals are subjective? If all goals and research are subjective then are they selfish due to the inability to explore life objectively?

         Ultimately, photographic memory seems to be more of an abstract ideal whereas eidetic memory is a feasible ability because of its many limitations. Photographic memory, in its simplest form, is the ability to see a picture and then regenerate an image of that picture in the brain for a long time. Such a concept seems reasonable but the term has become overly exact within its inexactness. Scientists know what it is yet, they do not grant anyone the title without a caveat. Doing so perpetuates a succinct concept into nothing less than an absolute phenomenon, which is beyond the grasp of all normal human beings. Eidetic memory is permissible because it is more human and leaves room for error. Perhaps photographic memory scares society because it is abnormally perfect. We admire what we cannot obtain and therefore, look down upon those few who obtain the unobtainable by castigating them and casting them as defective. Extremes intimidate the collective subjectivity of society. We aim to investigate and applaud the exceptional but at the end of the day majority rules. Photographic memory may forever be the unicorn and eidetic memory the pony searching for its wings.





Works Cited:


Foer, J. (2006). Kaavya Syndrome. Slate Magazine. Retrieved from


Giger, A. & Srinivasan, M. (1995). Pattern recognition in honeybees: eidetic imagery and orientation discrimination. J Comp Physiol, 176, 791-795.


La Brecque, M. (1972). Photographic Memory. Leonardo, 5, 347-349.


Lopez-Aranda, M., Lopez-Tellez, J., Navarro-Lobato, I., Masmudi-Martin, M., Gutierrez, A., & Khan, Z. (2009). Role of Layer 6 of V2 Visual Cortex in Object-Recognition Memory. Science, 325(3), 87-89.


Searleman, A. (2007). Is there such a thing as a photographic memory? And if so, can it be learned? Scientific American. Retrieved from


Smith, D. (2009). Coming Soon: Photographic Memory in a Pill? Popular Science. Retrieved from


Wilson, H. (2010). Biography of Stephen Wiltshire. The Stephen Wiltshire Gallery.

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Serendip Visitor's picture

Different Concepts Explained Right

It is really great how you state the difference between the photographic and the eidetic memory. The term has become so popular lately that people confuse them both. I like to find websites like yours or this one. Because it is important to know the difference that one single word can make.

Paul Grobstein's picture

interest in photographic/editetic memory

"Extremes intimidate the collective subjectivity of society."

But, if I'm hearing your argument correctly, extremes also intrigue the "collective subjectivity of society."  To put it differently, we are drawn to "ideals" that may not actually exist other than by virtue of recognition of our own limitations.  Lots of food for thought here, not only in re photographic/eidetic memory, but in re other things (including "fairness" and "reality") as well.

Sherman Owen's picture

3d with color and sound

I have a very unique form of this. I have not been diagnosed but I truly believe I have a form of Aspburgers spectrum along with sensory integration issues. I was tested at 150+ on the IQ test at 13.
To the point. I retain all my imagery as 3d, color, spacial with sound. I not only can recall and overlay imagery in the real world, but I cannot drive and listen to books on cd because the visual imagery is so vivid I forget I am supposed to be watching the road and not the play going on in my minds stage.
Many refer to me as a waking encyclopedia of useless information because I recall nearly every concept or procedure I have ever seen or heard. I am cursed with this ability, because it spans all the way back to my 2 year old memory. Every place I've lived, every one I ever paid attention to, and every conversation I have ever had. Any one, who disbelieves that this type of memory exists, has never met me. I would be willing to participate an any test. If you can keep my attention, I'll memorize everything as if it plays in nearly perfect recall, in 3d, color with sound.

Serendip Visitor's picture


Are you the writer of this page? Also, Can I use this page as a resource for my research paper?