Synopsis: Some people who remember things extremely well may claim they have a “photographic memory,” but some experts say such a thing doesn’t really exist. Experts discuss how memory works.

Host: Lynn Holley. Guests: Dr. Barry Gordon, Professor of Neurology and Cognitive Science, Johns Hopkins University; Dr. Henry Roediger, Washington University, St. Louis.

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Lynn Holley: Academy award winning actress Ingrid Bergman once said, “happiness is good health and a bad memory.”  That might be true for some people, but after a few aggravating instances of drawing a blank in your own recollection, most of us might wish our memories were stronger. But what if you didn’t forget?  What if your memory allowed you to recall the past almost perfectly, even the tiniest details? Some people claim they can, with what’s commonly referred to as a “photographic memory.” You might describe it as storing images in the mind, but is it really possible to keep a “mental photograph?”

Barry Gordon: When you think of what people mean by photographic memory in theory they mean somebody who looks at something and remembers it perfectly. But actually that never really happens.

Holley: That’s Dr. Barry Gordon, a Professor of Neurology and Cognitive Science at Johns Hopkins University.

Gordon: What you do find is people who can look at something and remember it extremely, extremely well, but not the way they remember a photograph. For example, they would look at it and remember the significance of different parts. Or their memories may fade a little bit or be enhanced in some areas. And people differ in how well they can do that, so there are people who look at a page in a book, look away, and virtually see the page in their minds for a while. But it’s actually not a true photograph for most people; it’s a kind of image, a recollection that just happens to be extremely detailed.

Holley: So what’s the difference between that and a “photographic memory?” Gordon says it’s a matter of degree. Nobody remembers everything, even if some people’s memories exceed normal standards.

Gordon: The closest in real life to what we think of as photographic memory is what’s called eidetic imagery. It’s as if there is a picture in the mind that people can look at. But even that is not quite a true photograph, although it’s detailed. It can have areas that are blurry or not as distinct. It happens that eidetic imagery almost never persists in adults. It’s seen in some children, and by some estimates two to ten percent of kids have eidetic imagery, but almost no adults retain it for reasons that are not clear. The third thing you find is people who simply have extremely good memories and can use words and other things to remember images and pictures rather than actually seeing something. When you think they have a photographic memory, it’s because they actually remember the words so well. They remember special location, they remember details that you wouldn’t think anybody paid attention to, that they do.

Holley: But having an extraordinary memory doesn’t necessarily mean someone never forgets.  Gordon says that someone who remembers just about everything in one area may be pretty normal or even worse in others.

Gordon: Human beings have a lot of different kinds of memories, so there’s no single memory that people have. They have lots of memory abilities. So if you look across the range of people you’ll discover people who are perfectly normal on the surface but have either very good or very bad abilities in a particular area. The ability in one area, even in memory, isn’t predictive of your ability in another area. So, for example, a while back there was this woman who won the Memory Olympics, which means she could remember long strings of numbers far better than anyone else could. But, as she pointed out, at home she had a bunch of yellow stickies on her refrigerator because she couldn’t remember what she had to buy. Her memory was very good for long strings of numbers, and I think maybe words, but it wasn’t good for remembering things she had to buy for the apartment.

Holley: Gordon says that people with strong memories often don’t realize it, and assume that everyone remembers like they do. So, what if you think your memory is extraordinary? Gordon says you might want to double check on that.

Gordon: When people have put out calls for individuals who think they have extraordinary memories, almost always the people that show up don’t have extraordinary memories they just think they do. The people that often have the best memories think of it as completely natural and don’t realize it’s different than what other people have.

Holley: But just because you weren’t born with a superb memory doesn’t mean you  can’t improve what you’ve got.  Gordon explains there are a variety of ways to help cultivate a better memory.

Gordon: One thing is, they actually have to want to get better. You have to make it active. There’s actually a lot of different instructions that all boil down to basically actively using the memory. So, I would use your name repeatedly, and you may have noticed if you ever meet a politician that they’re repeating your name constantly to help them remember it.

Holley: In fact, there are some folks who train their memories pretty much full time.  They call themselves “memory athletes,” and Dr. Henry Roediger and his research team at Washington University in St. Louis study how they do it. Memory athletes stage competitions against each other, and use interesting techniques to improve their scores.

Henry Roediger: The people are just amazing. They can do things that you and I just can’t believe. Usually, say, if I give you digits to remember, most normal people can remember about seven, maybe nine or ten in the upper in order. So if I were to read you, you know, a meaningless set of numbers, just random numbers just one at a time. But these people who have extraordinary memory capabilities, if you read them a list of a hundred digits they can usually say them right back to you. And how are they doing that, you ask, well, they are using images. One of the men Simon Reinhard has ten thousand images that he has associated with every possible four digit number. So, for example the set of digits two, six, eight, one might mean elephant for him. So, he hears 2681, he gets an elephant he hears four other digits he gets another image, hooks the elephant to the other images and so forth through a hundred two hundred digits.

Holley: Roediger says that memory athletes aren’t really that different from the rest of us. At least they probably started out that way. But they’ve worked at it.

Roediger: They’re all using fundamentally the same technique, which involves imagery, but they all have different takes on it, so Simon Reinhard is the only one who uses four numbers to have one image. Other people have three numbers for one image. So one idea of why Reinhard is better is he was able to memorize this gigantic set of ten thousand images to do digits, whereas most people didn’t take the effort to memorize those ten thousand images.

Holley: But that doesn’t mean some people find that easier than others. Gordon says some people are simply predisposed to excel at memory. As in any other skill, it takes talent to go along with the work.

Gordon: Just as you know people who might be good at say running, and other people are good at golf, so you might call it a kind of athletic ability. Well there’s as many different forms of mental ability as there are athletic ability and you can’t necessarily expect someone who is going to be good at one to be good at the other.

Holley: So while a photographic memory may not actually exist, the ability to remember varies. Scientists still aren’t sure why some people possess better memories than others, but people who want a stronger memory can get better—with some effort.   You can find out more about all of our guests at Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Nick Hofstra. I’m Lynn Holley.


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