Does Photographic Memory Exist?

4 minute read

Many people wonder whether photographic memory exists. There is no solid evidence that photographic memory exists, and without more evidence, it should be considered unlikely that true “photographic” memory exists.

Some people do have extra-ordinary memory abilities (test yourself on Memory League), but that is not the same thing as photographic memory.

Eidetic Memory is different from photographic memory, but claims of eidetic memory should also be treated skeptically, because it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as photographic memory, and it’s almost never found in adults.

If you are reading this page because you think you have a photographic memory, please test yourself by working your way to level 10 on Memory League using your photographic memory. If you can do it, please contact us. You will become famous as the first person ever proven to have a photographic memory!

Why photographic memory doesn’t exist


Here are several reasons why photographic memory probably does not exist:

1. There is no evidence of photographic memory

There was only one verified case of photographic memory, but the researcher married the subject and she was never tested again. Joshua Foer, author of Moonwalking with Einstein and USA Memory Champion, wrote:

In 1970, a Harvard vision scientist named Charles Stromeyer III published a landmark paper in Nature about a Harvard student named Elizabeth, who could perform an astonishing feat. Stromeyer showed Elizabeth’s right eye a pattern of 10,000 random dots, and a day later, he showed her left eye another dot pattern. She mentally fused the two images to form a random-dot stereogram and then saw a three-dimensional image floating above the surface. Elizabeth seemed to offer the first conclusive proof that photographic memory is possible. But then in a soap-opera twist, Stromeyer married her, and she was never tested again.

The article goes on to describe an attempt to find anyone with a photographic memory, but out of a million applicants, no one had a photographic memory:

In 1979, a researcher named John Merritt published the results of a photographic memory test he had placed in magazines and newspapers around the country. Merritt hoped someone might come forward with abilities similar to Elizabeth’s, and he figures that roughly 1 million people tried their hand at the test. Of that number, 30 wrote in with the right answer, and he visited 15 of them at their homes. However, with the scientist looking over their shoulders, not one of them could pull off Elizabeth’s trick.

Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains the story:

A rather well known case of an alleged adult eidetiker is a woman, known by the pseudonym Elizabeth, studied by Stromeyer & Psotka (1970; Stromeyer, 1970). The abilities ascribed to her, however, are not at all typical of those claimed by or for other eidetikers. The most impressive of her unique and surprising alleged feats was that she was supposedly able to use her eidetic ability to remember one half of a million-dot random dot stereogram with unbelievable accuracy. Then, when the second half of the stereogram was presented some hours later, she is said to have been able to eidetically fuse the two halves, so that she could “see” the three-dimensional shape thus produced (normally such 3-D fusion only takes place when the two halves of the stereogram are presented simultaneously, one to each of a subject’s eyes).[2] However, Blakemore et al. (1970) raise concerns about the methodology of the study, and are clearly skeptical of the claims made for Elizabeth, which, they say, if true, would entail “radical changes in thinking on visual processing.” As there is no credible account of anyone else coming anywhere close to duplicating this truly incredible performance in subsequent research, it is probably unwise to give the case much evidential weight. Despite considerable effort having been put into the search, nobody with even remotely similar abilities has been found (Merritt, 1979). Certainly the child eidetikers studied by Haber (1979) and others do not begin to be capable of any such feat (indeed, after, at most, about four minutes, by which time the eidetic image has supposedly faded, they are no better at recalling visual details of things than are non-eidetikers (Haber & Haber, 1964)), and Elizabeth herself has apparently refused to be re-tested.

Barry Gordon, professor of neurology and cognitive science at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, writes:

The intuitive notion of a “photographic” memory is that it is just like a photograph: you can retrieve it from your memory at will and examine it in detail, zooming in on different parts. But a true photographic memory in this sense has never been proved to exist.

Marvin Minsky, co-founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence lab, writes in Society of Mind:

…we often hear about people with ‘photographic memories’ that enable them to quickly memorise 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.

Skeptoid concludes:

What we’re left with is a lack of compelling evidence that eidetic memory exists at all among healthy adults, and no evidence that photographic memory exists. But there’s a common theme running through many of these research papers, and that’s that the difference between ordinary memory and exceptional memory appears to be one of degree.

See also the Eidetic Memory page.

2. None of the world’s top memorizers has a photographic memory

Random Binary Digits.png Out of all the memory championships in the world (including the elite Memory League World Championships), no one with a photographic memory has ever shown up, even when the prizes are in the tens of thousands of dollars (USD).

World Memory Championships have been running since 1991, and no one with a photographic memory has ever shown up there either.

All of the top memorizers in the world use the same memory techniques that are found on this website.

(Tip: download a free ebook on how to get started.)

See Also