There has recently been an influx of discussion and questions about eidetic memory within the world of psychology. According to the Encyclopedia of Psychology, eidetic memory is “abundant and unusually vivid visual recall.” This has led to people linking eidetic memory to photographic memory, a phenomenon that scientists have said is an entirely different ability that may be more myth than fact. Though eidetic memory has been shown to exist, it is also exceedingly rare, and usually only seen in children.
What is Eidetic Memory?
Eidetic memory is the ability to recall an image, as well as sounds and other sensations associated with that image, with so much accurate detail that it is as if they are still seeing it. The ability does not require prolonged exposure to the visual image, and it also does not last for a prolonged period of time. Importantly, in order for a memory to be considered eidetic it cannot rely on any mnemonic devices to assist with its recall. Eidetic memory has been positively confirmed in children, but only in about between 2 to 15% of American children under the age of 12. It is extremely rare in adults. Researchers theorize that this is a result of children having a greater tendency to rely on the visual images they see, while adults have a tendency to try to encode both visual and verbal cues, thus weakening the formation of eidetic memories. Individuals who are identified as having eidetic memory are referred to as “eidetikers.”(Stanford University)
What Distinguishes Eidetic Imagery?
A specific test exists to identify whether a person is an eidetiker and forms eidetic memories. This test is known as the Picture Elicitation Method [reference link no longer available], and involves placing an unfamiliar image in front of the subject and providing them with a limited period of time (usually 30 seconds) to look at it. The picture is then removed, though the easel it had been resting on remains and the individual is asked what they see when they look at it. People who have eidetic memory continue to see the picture as if it is still in place, and can describe different sections of it in detail, going so far as to use present tense in their description.
What the edetikers see is specifically not an afterimage, which is characterized both by colors in the image changing and the image moving along with movements of the eye. Instead, the colors that are described remain consistent and the eidetiker’s eye remains focused on where the image had been. Most important of all, eidetic images eventually fade away bit by bit and only last about four minutes, and eidetikers can purposely make the image go away by repeatedly blinking their eyes. After the memory is gone, it cannot generally be retrieved. (Scientific American)
The Difference Between Eidetic Memory and Photographic Memory
Upon learning about eidetic memory, many people make the logical leap to what they understand as photographic memory, an ability that has largely been disproven as myth. Though many people do have excellent memories, the notion of being able to quickly view an image and encode it into permanent, retrievable, perfect memory has been disproven time and again by researchers. The closest that anybody has come to exhibiting that type of ability have been a few savants similar to the one profiled in the Dustin Hoffman movie Rain Man, but even they do not have complete abilities. People who have notably remarkable memories generally zero in on a specific area of interest or talent — basketball star LeBron James is an excellent example of this: though many people attribute his uncanny ability to remember details, plays and dates of individual basketball games to having a photographic memory, it is likely more true that he has an excellent memory fortified by his love and study of the game. Others who claim that they have a photographic memory actually rely on mnemonic tools to enhance their ability to remember details about specific subjects. There is a highly specific form of memory termed hyperthymestic syndrome that has been associated with photographic memory — it is an ability that some people have to remember autobiographical detail from throughout their lives in extreme detail. (Slate Magazine)