12 Things You Didn't Know About Photographic Memory

Photographic memory is the legendary ability to look at something and take a picture of it in your head, then examine that picture later and recall all of the details perfectly. But is photographic memory real? And if so, how does photographic memory work?

The answers to those questions might surprise you. This list is full of things that you probably didn't know about photographic memory.

  • It's Not Real

    Photographic memory has never been proven to actually exist. According to scientists and psychologists, it's impossible to recall every detail about an image with perfect accuracy after only a brief viewing.
  • It's Been Used as an Excuse for Plagiarism

    It's Been Used as an Excuse for Plagiarism
    Photo: Jason Truscott / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
    When young adult novelist Kaavya Viswanathan was accused of stealing 29 passages from a book by another author, her excuse was that she has a photographic memory and the plagiarism was unintentional. Since photographic memory has never been proven to exist, this seems like a bad excuse. But scientists have proven the existence of a different phenomenon called cryptomnesia, when people unintentionally claim others' ideas as their own.
  • Memory Works Like a Jigsaw Puzzle, Not a Camera

    Memory is a complex process that scientists don't fully understand yet. But here's what they do know: When you experience something, your hippocampus and frontal cortex decide what about it is worth remembering. These bits of information are stored in different parts of the brain, and then assembled again when you recall the memory. You will not be able to recall every single detail of a particular image, because your brain only catalogues the important parts.
  • So-Called Photographic Memory Is Always Something Else

    People who claim to have a photographic memory or seem like they have one always have some other ability that merely mimics photographic memory. Some savants can remember extraordinary amounts of information. Some people are particularly skilled at using mnemonic devices. Some people might have eidetic memory - the real ability closest to photographic memory.
  • Eidetic Memory Is Imperfect

    Eidetic Memory Is Imperfect
    Photo: Sam Cox / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0
    People with eidetic memory can look at an unfamiliar image for 30 seconds, and then describe details about it while they aren't looking at it. They can recall, for example, the number of petals on a flower. This isn't actually photographic memory, because their descriptions sometimes have errors, and accuracy declines after only a few minutes.
  • Eidetic Memory Is Most Common in Children

    Eidetic Memory Is Most Common in Children
    Photo: Jay / flickr / CC-BY 2.0
    Scientists are not exactly sure why, but most people with eidetic memory are children. The ability fades after about age six. This could be because eidetic ability hinders the functionality of memory; the brain has to be able to filter out unimportant details in order to work efficiently.