You can take “photographic memory” two ways.
First, there is the photographic memory that people study and still question whether it exists. That is properly called “eidetic memory.” It is also referred to as “total recall” and it is the unusual ability to recall images, sounds, or objects in your memory with extreme accuracy.
It has been studied in children and adults and certainly exists to some degree, but many people who claim to have it, just have some irregular occurrences of that ability or just a plain old “good memory.” I had students of all ages who told me that they could study 20 minutes before a test and remember it all – and then would get a 70% grade.
True eidetikers will say that after having seen something – a list, a painting, a face – they can later still “see” the information when it is gone as if it were still there. I have read that some people with autism or Asperger syndrome seem to have this ability.
The chances are that if you or I think we have a good memory of something, we have associated it with certain details or used (consciously or not) mnemonic devices to retain the information. Real eidetikers would remember very specific details.
For example, I might recall that we met at a party last Christmas at Bob’s house. I recognize your face, your name, and a story you told about taking a cruise to Alaska. Someone with total recall would remember what you wore, where you were standing, the color of your eyes, what you were drinking, the names of your children and wife, what you ate, the car that I saw you get into when you left, etc.
But there’s another type of photographic memory that I don’t think gets as much study.
When my two sons were 10 and 8, we had a conversation about a trip to Disneyworld that we took when they were 4 and 6. I was amazed at how little they remembered about the vacation. I remembered much more of the details of the trip. What really surprised me was that they were already losing their memories. Sure, I couldn’t remember much of anything from when I was 4 or 6, but I’m old! When they told me what they did remember from that vacation, I realized what they could recall were almost exclusively the things that we had photographs of in our albums and what I had captured on video.
They had photographic memories – memories of photographs.
I’m glad that I have filled albums and tapes and disks with memories of their childhood. I wish I had more from my own. I realize that many, luckily not all, of my childhood memories, do come from photos.
I suppose the memories are still “in there” and the photos just trigger some neuron to fire at the right time. They say that if photographic memory does exist, it would be in the hippocampus. In the book, Society of Mind, Marvin Minsky says that he was unable to verify claims of eidetic memory, so he considered it an “unfounded myth.” I don’t agree – but it depends on your definition.