Eidetic memory (//), commonly referred to as photographic memory or total recall, is the ability to recall images, sounds or objects in memory with great precision, and is not acquired through mnemonics. The word eidetic comes from the Greek word εἶδος (pronounced [êːdos], eidos, "seen").
The ability to recall images in great detail for several minutes is often found in early childhood (between 2% and 10% of that age group) and is unconnected with the person's intelligence level. Like other memories, they are often subject to unintended alterations. The ability usually begins to fade after the age of six years, perhaps as growing vocal skills alter the memory process. A few adults have had phenomenal memories (not necessarily of images), but their abilities are also unconnected with their intelligence levels and tend to be highly specialized. In extreme cases, like those of Solomon Shereshevsky and Kim Peek, memory skills can actually hinder social skills.
An example of extraordinary memory abilities being ascribed to eidetic memory comes from the popular interpretations of Adriaan de Groot's classic experiments into the ability of chess Grandmasters to memorize complex positions of chess pieces on a chess board. Initially it was found that these experts could recall surprising amounts of information, far more than non-experts, suggesting eidetic skills. However, when the experts were presented with arrangements of chess pieces that could never occur in a game, their recall was no better than the non-experts, suggesting that they had developed an ability to organize certain types of information, rather than possessing innate eidetic ability.
Scientific skepticism about the existence of eidetic memory was fueled around 1970 by Charles Stromeyer who studied his future wife Elizabeth, who claimed that she could recall poetry written in a foreign language that she did not understand years after she had first seen the poem. She also could, apparently, recall random dot patterns with such fidelity as to combine two patterns into a stereoscopic image. She remains the only person documented to have passed such a test. However, the methodology of the testing procedures used is questionable (especially given the extraordinary nature of the claims being made) as is the fact that the researcher married his subject, and that the tests have never been repeated (Elizabeth has consistently refused to repeat them) raises further concerns.
Claims of eidetic memory
With the questionable exception of Elizabeth (discussed above), as of 2008, no one claiming to have long-term eidetic memory has been able to prove this in scientific tests. There are a number of individuals with extraordinary memory who have been labeled eidetickers, but many use mnemonics and other, non-eidetic memory enhancing exercises.
- Stephen Wiltshire, MBE, a prodigious savant. He is capable of drawing the entire skyline of a city after a helicopter ride.
- Daniel Tammet, holder of the European record for reciting Pi to 22,514 digits.
In popular culture
Television characters with eidetic memories include
- Dr. Douglas "Doogie" Howser from Doogie Howser, M.D.
- Solf J. Kimblee from Fullmetal Alchemist
- Special Agent Fox Mulder from The X-Files
- Professor X from X-Men
- Zack from Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?
- T.J. Henderson from Smart Guy
- Max Guevara from Dark Angel
- Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote
- Victoria Sinclair and her uncle Sir George Sinclair from 2008 TV movie The 39 Steps
- Batman, Bane and Barbara Gordon from Batman
- Detective Adrian Monk from Monk
- Jimmy Neutron from The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius
- Dr. Spencer Reid from Criminal Minds
- Dr. Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap
- Dr. Lexie Grey from Grey's Anatomy
- Dr. Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory
- Percival Rose from Nikita
- Ingrid Third from Fillmore!
- Shawn Spencer from Psych
- Olivia Dunham from Fringe
- Myka Bering from Warehouse 13
- Mozzie from White Collar
- Olive Doyle from Disney's A.N.T. Farm
- Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation
- Kes and Seven of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager
- Spock from Star Trek: The Original Series
- Susan Ivanova from Babylon 5
- Brick Heck from The Middle
- Charlie Andrews from Heroes
- H. M. Murdock from The A-Team
- Mike Ross from Suits
- Carrie Wells from Unforgettable
- Malcolm from Malcolm in the Middle
- Rory Gilmore from The Gilmore Girls
- Kei Takishima from Special A
- Glenn Garth Gregory from The Delphi Bureau
- Ichabod Crane from the Fox series Sleepy Hollow claims to have an Eidetic Memory in the second episode of Season 1
- Bart Allen from The Flash
- Nash Bridges from Nash Bridges
- Zack Addy from Bones
In Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events series, one of the three protagonists, Klaus Baudelaire, is an avid reader and amateur researcher with an eidetic memory. He remembers virtually everything that he reads from books of any kind, even learned many languages. His knowledge and resources often help his other siblings, Violet and Sunny, to escape from dangerous situations, e.g. Count Olaf, the primary antagonist of the series.
In the movie Good Will Hunting, the main character, Will Hunting, is said to possess both an extraordinary IQ and an eidetic memory, demonstrated at the bar scene where he confronts a plagiarist.
Significant parts of the plot of Small Gods by Terry Pratchett depend on the hyperthymestic, eidetic memory of the novice Brutha. He remembers every moment of his life in perfect detail, down to the precise location and timing of individual footsteps. He cannot read, but he can nevertheless make perfect reproductions of documents from memory because he remembers the shapes of the letters. When he witnesses a disreputable action and is ordered to forget it, he does not understand the order as he has no concept of "forgetting". When asked what is the first thing that he can remember, he replies "There was a bright light, and then someone hit me".
The novel My Idea of Fun by author Will Self features a protagonist with a powerful eidetic memory, and this is explored extensively by Self. In this novel, the eidetic capabilities of the "Eidetiker" greatly exceed those described in this article.
In the visual novels Jisei, Kansei and Yousei by SakeVisual, one of the characters, Naoki Mizutani, possesses an eidetic memory.
In the comic book series Ruse, Simon Archard, one of the primary protagonists, has an eidetic memory.
In the Mass Effect series, the Drell species possess eidetic memory as a racial trait.
In Sharon Draper's novel Out of My Mind, the character Melody has eidetic memory though she has a condition called "Cerebral Palsy".
In David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest, the character Hal Incandenza has an eidetic memory.
In Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files, Lasciel, Dresden's temporary mental houseguest, creates a physical persona named Sheila, who helps Dresden with some magical detective work by using her eidetic memory.
- Ayumu - a chimpanzee whose performance in short-term memory tests is higher than university students
- Exceptional memory – scientific background to the research into exceptional memory
- Hyperthymesia – a condition characterised by superior autobiographical memory
- Synaptic plasticity - ability of the strength of a synapse to change
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- Barber, Nigel (December 22, 2010). "Remembering everything? Memory searchers suffer from amnesia!". Psychology Today (Sussex). Retrieved July 10, 2013.
- Minsky, Marvin (1998). Society of Mind. Simon & Schuster. p. 153. ISBN 978-0-671-65713-0. "...we often hear about people with 'photographic memories' that enable them to quickly memorize all the fine details of a complicated picture or a page of text in a few seconds. So far as I can tell, all of these tales are unfounded myths, and only professional magicians or charlatans can produce such demonstrations."
- Stromeyer, C. F., Psotka, J. (1970). "The detailed texture of eidetic images". Nature 225 (5230): 346–349. doi:10.1038/225346a0. PMID 5411116.
- Thomas, N.J.T. (2010). Other Quasi-Perceptual Phenomena. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
- Blakemore, C., Braddick, O., & Gregory, R.L. (1970). Detailed Texture of Eidetic Images: A Discussion. Nature, 226, 1267–1268.
- Foer, Joshua (April 27, 2006). "Kaavya Syndrome: The accused Harvard plagiarist doesn't have a photographic memory. No one does.". Slate. Retrieved December 16, 2012.
- Treffert, Darold (1989). Extraordinary People: understanding "idiot savants". New York: Harper & Row. ISBN 0-06-015945-6.
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- Larsson, Stieg (2009). The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. p. 462. ISBN 978-0-307-47347-9. "'Lisbeth, you have a photographic memory,' Mikael exclaimed in surprise. 'That's why you can read a page of the investigation in ten seconds.'"
- Self, Will (1993). My Idea of Fun. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 165. ISBN 0-7475-1591-3. "I went into a full-blown eidetic trance."