This is part of my 5 Minute Concepts series, which is designed to help you understand fundamental concepts about subjects like learning, memory and competition in the shortest time possible. Each episode is available in video format on my YouTube channel and audio via my podcast. If you prefer to read, the transcript is below.
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Let’s talk about photographic memory, a topic that I’ve been asked about more times than I can count.
First, we need to get one thing out of the way: photographic memory is a myth. That’s right, nobody has ever been able to prove that they have a photographic memory.
The reasons for this are related to what I talked about in Why Your Brain is Lazy, namely that your brain is forced into making trade-offs because it uses so much energy all the time.
When your brain encounters a stimulus in the world, it makes a decision to either keep it (what’s called “encoding”) or get rid of it. This is based on whether your brain sees the stimulus in question as salient.
If it is salient, then the encoding process will probably kick off, and if it’s just an everyday, run-of-the-mill stimulus, then it won’t.
Your brain will always make this trade-off, and no amount of training can circumvent such a fundamental biological principle. It’s an evolved survival strategy designed to reduce the amount of energy that gets wasted during the memory formation process, and there’s no way to escape it.
The question, then, is: why do so many people believe that photographic memory is real?
A simplified answer is that popular media loves to use it as a short-hand for high levels of intelligence and most people don’t question that stereotype.
Elon Musk is often used as an example of the hyper-genius who possesses a photographic memory, but as far as I know that claim about his memory has never been tested.
The more complete answer is that there are people who do exhibit extraordinary memory abilities, and those abilities get mis-classified as photographic memory.
There are some people who could be called savants who have exhibited world-class memory abilities. Kim Peek, the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rainman, could absorb incredible amounts of information in one sitting. Stephen Wiltshire is a savant who can recreate skylines in incredible detail after seeing them once.
These savants do have great memories, but there are two important qualifiers to consider: 1) their memories are never good enough to qualify as “photographic” (Stephen Wiltshire’s pictures contain many mistakes, for example), and 2) the memory abilities they possess appear to come at a huge cost, as they’re not able to take care of basic everyday tasks.
So their increased capacity for memory is a trade-off that doesn’t appear to be beneficial to their survival, which says a lot about how evolved the standard memory algorithm is.
Some people also exhibit what’s called hyperthymesia, or superior autobiographical memory. This group of people have an uncanny ability to remember the minute details of their day-to-day lives.
These individuals appear to have some kind of focused memory algorithm that doesn’t envelop their overall memory abilities. In other words, their brain prioritizes a specific type of information for encoding, but that benefit doesn’t overlap with any other facet of their memory.
One last example is the group of people who compete at memory competitions. Memory competitors do things like memorize entire decks of cards within a few minutes.
This is all accomplished with the use of what are called mnemonics, which are memory tricks that can be used to memorize (for short periods of time and with lots of practice) specific bits of information.
Nobody with a claimed photographic memory has ever won a world memory championship, which is hilarious since you’d think that’s where they’d show up. If you had a photographic memory, why not cash in on it?
Anyway, the general idea to take out of all this is that photographic memory doesn’t exist. You can improve your memory in specific ways with specific techniques, but overall you can’t get away from the fact that your memory automatically tosses most of what it encounters.