My Photographic Memory


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.

Photography and Memory

The almanac told me that on August 19, 1829, French painter and physicist Louis Daguerre presented his photographic process to the French Academy of Sciences. He had not taken the first photograph. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce did that a few years before, but the quality of those earliest ones was quite poor. It took an 8-hour exposure to capture an image.

Daguerre worked with Niépce to improve the process. The newer method only needed a copper plate coated with silver iodide to be exposed to light in the camera for 20 to 30 minutes. It was then fumed with mercury vapor to bring out the image and then fixed with a salt solution to make it permanent. Daguerre called the finished product a “daguerreotype.”

Daguerre’s photo of Boulevard du Temple, Paris

In Daguerre’s image of Boulevard du Temple in Paris from 1839, you don’t see any traffic or pedestrians because the long exposure (10-30 minutes) didn’t capture moving things. However, if you look closely, there is a man getting his shoes polished (bottom left corner) and the pair must have been there long enough to be captured on the photo plate. There might be third person to the right of the two men sitting on a bench and reading a paper. The three are praobly the first people ever captured in a photo.

It was a dangerous process and photographers became ill or died from mercury poisoning. And the daguerreotype was best suited for still objects. Still, people wanted their portraits even if it meant sitting in bright sunlight as perfectly still as possible for a half hour, and so early daguerreotype portraits have some stern-looking faces.

memory and now video Simply put, a photo is information about past light that we can perceive in present time. Similarly, memories are the affects of our past experiences on our present self. A picture can trigger a buried memory and recall a precise moment in time much more rapidly than words. But why exactly? Neuroscientists have known for many years that humans have an extraordinary ability to encode pictures Photographs can serve as memory storage and, when viewed, can activate memory recall. Imagery an effective way to enhance memory, reduce false memories, study finds. Summary: Using imagery is an effective way to improve memory and decrease certain types of false memories, according to researchers

An NPR story last year counterintuitively suggested that “To Remember The Moment, Try Taking Fewer Photos.” The process of “offloading” our memory using photos is aptly called the photo-taking impairment effect. That is when we use technology to remember something, you are outsourcing their memory. Unconsciously, if we knows that a camera is preserving a moment, you don’t pay the same kind of full attention to it that would create a strong memory.

The technology doesn’t need to be “high tech” for thisind of effect. Write down a phone number or list of things to get at a store and you are offloading memory. But research shows that a picture can trigger a buried memory or recall a precise moment in time much more rapidly than words.

So, then photos are bad for our mental health. According to some research, photography is a highly cognitive activity and participants in a study who engaged in digital photography showed benefits to their episodic memory and reasoning skills.

We know that memories are not exact digital copies of the events we witnessed. Digital photos are and video is an expanded version of that. Every time we recall a memory, we may accidentally alter it or diminish its accuracy.

In 2015, psychology researchers published a paper titled “The Brain in Your Pocket” that found that people are using computers as a cognitive crutch. We take photos, leave ousrselves notes, ask it to find answers on the Internet for us. I’ll admit that I really know very few phone numbers of my contacts because the phone does it for me. I ask Siri or Alexa if it will rain today, who directed Casablanca (Michael Curtiz) or what is the current price of a Bitcoin (about $21,000). One of those questions is about memory; two are about the future. All three shape cognitive functions, such as attention, memory, processing speed, reasoning, planning, problem solving, and multitasking.

Should we fear photography? An early professional daguerreotype photographer said concerning people’s reaction to their portraits that they were afraid at first to look at the photos. They were embarrassed by the clarity of detail in a way that looking in a mirror didn’t cause the same reaction.

The painters that became known as the Impressionists were at least partly reacting to photography. Why try to capture every detail realisticlly on canvas when a camera could do a far superior reproduction? They needed to do something the camera could not do. There are also things about memories that a camera can not record. Those things may be the most important elements of memories.

Memories, Photographs, and the Human Brain

Get Happy

laughing women
Photo by ELEVATE on

A little post I put here seven years ago titled “What Happiness Looks Like ” continues to be one of my most-read posts and I suspect it is because of that “happy” part. We all want to be happy. And there are “happy chemicals.”

Can you stimulate happy chemicals? Perhaps you can, if you know how the happy and unhappy chemicals operate.

The expectation of something good, like a reward, triggers dopamine. Dopamine alerts your attention to things that meet your needs. It can be triggered by just thinking about and seeing a great meal even before you actually taste any of it. It pushes us to seek out what we need and persist in that seeking. Embracing a new goal and moving towards it in stages, perhaps daily, will reward you with dopamine.

Serotonin is another happy chemical. Confidence is one thing that triggers serotonin. Things that inspire confidence – like getting the respect of peers – gives you a shot of serotonin and then your brain seeks to repeat behaviors that triggered it in your past. Don’t focus on losses as that will depress your serotonin, focus on your wins.

Oxytocin is a third happy chemical and it is triggered by trust. In the animal kingdom, mammals stick with a herd because it releases oxytocin when they are part of a group they trust. Interestingly, reptiles don’t like being with other reptiles. They only release oxytocin during sex. When trust is betrayed, your brain releases unhappy chemicals. You can build trust consciously by creating realistic expectations in relationships and then when expectations are met, your brain rewards you.

Pain causes endorphins to be released, but we don’t want pain. There is the term “endorphin high” that runners can experience which is produced when they push past their limits. Endorphin masks pain which feels good. It is a survival chemical that keeps you going when you are injured. It disappears when the pain is gone, which is good because otherwise, we wouldn’t sense pain when we burned ourselves or some harm came to us. It’s an odd happy chemical that comes out of unhappy circumstances.

What are the unhappy/bad chemicals? Cortisol is one. It is our internal alarm system, a stress hormone that alerts the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain to change our mood, motivation, and fear. Cortisol is produced in the adrenal glands located at the top of your kidneys.

Though it is bad because it is produced from stress, it does good things to protect us too. It keeps inflammation down, regulates blood pressure, increases your blood sugar (glucose), changes your sleep/wake cycle and boosts energy so you can handle stress. But constant stress produces too much cortisol which leads to anxiety and depression, headaches, heart disease, memory and concentration problems, digestion issues, trouble sleeping and weight gain. Very unhappy stuff.

There are medications to control the happy and unhappy chemicals. Many anti-depressants are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that are used to treat depression by increasing levels of serotonin in the brain. There are also supplements that claim to improve mood positively which I will not comment on here.

The natural ways to increase the happy chemicals are all things that we should try to do regularly anyway. Get out of the house or office, exercise even if it is just walking. Laugh! Laughing swaps the cortisol in our bloodstream with dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins. Do things you enjoy, from cooking, gardening, playing an instrument, doing artwork and, yes, having sex.

You can find online ways to increase the good mood chemicals. These will not pull someone out of deep depression or eliminate stress but they will help. Oxytocin increases when you listen to music, get or give a massage, spend time with friends in good conversation, meditate, and even from petting your dog or cat.

Your Brain As a Transducer

computer and brain
Image by ParallelVision from Pixabay

For about as long as we have had anything considered to be a computer, we have compared it to our brain. Since we continue to try to create artificial intelligence that is like a human brain, we alternately have used computers to try to understand our brains.

Is it a fair comparison? A computer has storage. So does a brain. Different computers have different processing speeds. Check on brains. We always talk about computer memory, and we talk a lot about our human memory.

Both use electrical signals to send information, though the brain uses chemicals and computers use electricity. The nervous system is high speed but the computer is faster.

What about those on or off (binary) computer switches? Our neurons also fire on and off.

Computer memory can grow by adding computer chips. The brain has plenty of memory space and it expands by making stronger synaptic connections.

But they are not really the same things. Computers are faster than brains and computer memory is more precise. But humans have more storage capacity. And computers still can’t nuance memory access like a brain.

A typical computer runs on about 100 watts of power, but a brain only needs about 10 watts. Super energy efficient.

The computer as brain metaphor has been the dominant metaphor in neuroscience, but now it has fallen out of favor. In fact, it might even have sent scientists in the wrong direction for decades. How about your brain is a transducer?

What is a transducer?  It is a device that converts variations in a physical quantity, such as pressure or brightness, into an electrical signal or vice versa. They are all around us – microphones, loudspeakers, thermometers, position and pressure sensors, and antenna.

The brain is still pretty much a mystery. It’s not a mystery like ghosts, but more of a mystery like dreams. For example, my fingers are right now putting pressure on my keyboard and moving a mouse and both movements and pressures are causing transduction. Analog is converting to digital. Words are appearing on the screen. The words – converted to bits – are flying through the air in my family room to a wireless WiFi point and then flying through a wire off to a server in the “cloud” that might just as well be in the real clouds.

But let’s back up to before my fingers started putting pressure on keys. Organic transduction via our sense organs — eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin — is happening. I can’t even comprehend what effect electromagnetic radiation, air pressure waves, airborne chemicals, liquid-borne chemicals, textures, pressure, and temperature are having on my writing right now. Electrical and chemical activity in my brain is somehow sending those words in a reasonable order down to my fingertips.

Thank you evolution for all the forms of transduction we possess. And thanks for most of the forms of transduction that humans have invented and are still inventing.

There are still some missing transducers. I can’t connect to plants or the universe. I know there are those who say via things like ayahuasca that they can connect to the unseen. Religions all seem to offer connections to a transcendent reality. Neither path has worked for me.

Let’s see if transduction theory catches hold and leads to a better understanding of the brain or the universe.


Ignore More

Ever since I was a very young student, I’ve been told to pay attention and focus – and was sometimes scolded for not doing so.. Both things are obviously important to succeeding in school and in later life. But I have also come to recognize how important it is to ignore some things.

I suppose “ignore” has a negative connotation, so let me clarify. You need to better allocate your limited time, attention and focus to find the most factual, practical and useful knowledge needed to make informed decisions and choices.

A simple example is screen time. Whether the screen is a big flat one on the wall or a small one in your hand, there is more information available there than anyone can view, process or use. The current information age is a time of scrolling and interruptions.  You need to be effective at ignoring information that turns out to be wrong factually or just irrelevant. If only filtering information was as easy as turning on a filtration system in your home.

In my lifetime of teaching, I know that teachers are always working with students doing research to be more intelligent and effective at filtering out the irrelevant and inaccurate.

All that sounds good and uncontroversial – but it’s not. Social media has come under increasing pressure to be better at filtering just as we have taught students, but every filtering method has been criticized. They have tried using trained humans but that is slow and not very efficient. They have tried using algorithms and technology but that isn’t always as smart as a human though it is faster and more efficient.

Bias also enter the equation. This past week Facebook and Twitter CEOs faced tough (and sometimes ill-informed) questions about how they operate. Do the platforms filter with a bias that disfavors conservatives and Republican and President Trump, or is that where the most disinformation is generated?

“The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention,” wrote Nicholas Carr his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

Can we unplug from the Net and media? Of course, you can. You can hide away in a cabin on a remote mountaintop, but is that a way to live? It’s an extreme reaction.

It makes more sense to improve your filtering, but that isn’t easy. There is no course you can take or an easy list of ten things to do. You can start by knowing that you can’t read every article, tweet, email, Facebook or Twitter post.  Can you resist? You’ve probably heard the acronym FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) about the actual physically measurable “fear” people get when they see that badge that says they have unread, unseen content. It’s hard for some people to just ignore or delete without checking.

Carr’s book covers research that shows that this flood of information is more than our brain is configured to handle. TMI – Too Much Information – is literally the case. We take it in and relevant or not our brain tries to categorize and store it. It gets filled like that storage room with a lot of stuff that we don’t need. It’s easier to clean that storage space than clean your brain.

I have taken to watching the half-hour evening news rather than putting on a 24-hour news channel that repeats the same news over and over and adds in a lot of opinions. Do I miss some news? Yes, but I get the major stories and if I want to know more about a story I can easily find it online.

In the same way that tobacco companies used formulas and advertising to keep people wanting more, networks and media platforms work hard at keeping us looking.  When one streaming episode or movie ends, another one is queued up for you to continue. When you search for a certain book, video or topic, the Net will certainly suggest others. Going down that rabbit hole is very, very easy. As the title of a book by Adam Alter puts it, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.

“Behavioral addiction” is what makes us be obsessed by text messages, emails, likes, and feeds and makes us binge video. We average about three hours each day on our smartphones. Back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s there was a lot of research and talk about how broadcast television was hurting kids learning.  If all that research had some validity, imagine what Millennial, Generations Y and Z, Zoomers and Generation Alpha kids are doing to their brains and learning by the amount of screen time and information they consume.

What can we do? Alter suggests that we reverse engineer behavioral addictions. Good luck with that.

Our Brain’s Constant Predicting

The end of a year and the start of a new year brings many predictions about things to come. Predictive coding has nothing to do with “coding” computers or predicting trends and everything to do with our personal neuroscience.

The classical view of perception states that we experience the world by receiving input from our environment, processing it at the higher levels of our brain, and then responding accordingly.

A newer alternative theory proposes to add to those three steps that our higher faculties often “predict” the input from our environment. That means we have a perception of some things before we experience it. This is called predictive coding or predictive processing.

I read an article by Sara Briggs and then followed up with another titled “To Make Sense of the Present, Brains May Predict the Future.” In those readings, I encountered this theory (still controversial) that suggests that perception, motor control, memory, and other brain functions all depend on comparisons between ongoing actual experiences and the brain’s modeled expectations.

The next day I noticed a connection when my son’s visiting dog seemed to do some predictive processing. Pepper reacts to her doorbell at home by barking and sprinting to the front window. We were watching the movie Love Actually and in one scene Hugh Grant’s character rang a series of doorbells looking for a woman’s home. Even though these were different doorbell sounds from the sound in Pepper’s home, she reacted to each ring in the same way that she does at home. Her actual experience in my home and her brain’s modeled expectation created a match.

One way scientists look for evidence to support this theory is to look at cases where the brain predicts too much or too little. For example, individuals with autism would presumably have a weak predictive filter. That would mean that they have a harder time categorizing items based on past experiences.  They would have an extreme sensitivity to input from the environment and the many “new” experiences could be overwhelming.

A person with schizophrenia would be at the other extreme with an overly strong predictive filter. Their brain would be so certain about what it’s looking at, it will cancel out new information and have false perceptions, possibly even hallucinations.

What is considered “normal” is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

Of course, we can change that by changing our brain chemistry. That is why some research uses psychedelic substances. Some neuroscientists might say that our “normal” perception is a “controlled hallucination.” Substances like psilocybin and LSD remove the predictive filter and so when we under that influence someone sees something common to daily life, such as a tree, there is no prediction and it alternative perceptions emerge. The branches moving in the wind are arms and the leaves are flames. The drugs don’t add to perception but by removing the filter they allow other possibilities.

How does this predictive coding affect learning new things?

To learn new things we need to be open to new perceptions which means the filter must be reduced to some extent. But in order to retain the new information and use it in the future, we need a predictive model of that information, which requires that filter to be operating normally. When the two are balanced, learning and memory are optimized.

In a more simplified explanation, being open-minded should lead to greater learning. We don’t put information in a box and move on.

Some of this theorizing isn’t new at all. Back in the 1860s, the framework known as the “Bayesian brain” was introduced and Helmholtz’s concept of unconscious inference emerged. It proposes that the brain makes probabilistic inferences about the world based on an internal model, – it calculates a “best guess” interpretation of what it’s perceiving. The name comes from Bayesian statistics which quantifies the probability of an event based on relevant information gleaned from prior experiences.

These “controlled hallucinations” based on predictions don’t wait for all sensory information to drive cognition. We are constantly constructing hypotheses about the world. We use these to explain new experiences. The brain is constantly generating and updating a mental model of sensory input.