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When characters on TV like Mike Ross from the show “Suits” and Sheldon Cooper from “The Big Bang Theory” flex incredible memory abilities, you may start to wonder if people like them are real. Well, they are, and this special ability is known as an eidetic memory.
An eidetic memory is also known as a photographic memory. It is a special type of memory in which a person can store lots of visual information (VI), and store it for a very long time. Before going into the details of this ability, let’s understand what a memory is.
According to the Oxford dictionary, memory is the capability by which the mind stores and remembers information. The two keywords to note down here are “store” and “remember” (recall).
Let’s start by seeing how memories are stored. Let’s use VI as an example. The information enters our body through our eyes. In the eye, it hits the retina, passes through the optic nerve, and then enters the brain.
Most VI is stored for a short time. This VI gets stored in a part of the brain located towards the front, called the prefrontal cortex. This information is remembered for about 20–30 seconds. On the other hand, for a memory to be stored long-term, it needs to enter the hippocampus.
There are many ways in which memories are stored long-term. Repeating information over and over again will help it get stored. This is why when you read a textbook very often, you may recall the exact page numbers on which you find certain things.
Recent studies show that the hormone adrenaline (ADR) also helps in creating long-term memories. This is why you can remember exciting events very well, even if they only happen once. People with eidetic memories can store long-term memories without the help of ADR.
A person with eidetic memory can describe an image with all the little fine details after observing it for only as much as 30 seconds. We’re still not completely sure what causes people to get this ability, but research has shown that it can either be caused by genetics or by environmental factors.
Some people have an even more incredible sense of memory, remembering every single detail of their life from as young an age as seven years old. These abilities are so new to us that they’re not even in textbooks yet!
Retina: a layer at the back of the eyeball that contains cells sensitive to light, which trigger nerve impulses that pass to the brain via the optic nerve
Prefrontal cortex: a part of the brain located near the front, right behind your forehead
Hippocampus: a part of the brain located near the base of the brain, where it joins the spinal cord
Adrenaline: a hormone secreted by the adrenal glands that is associated with feelings of excitement and fright.
Environmental factors: In this context, an environmental factor is any external factor involved in the upbringing and growth of a person; anything that is not predetermined by genetics.
Flesch-Kincaid reading ease: 62.2
Flesch Kincaid grade level: 8.8
- Klein, S. B. (2014). What Memory is. WIREs Cognitive Science, 6(1), 1–38. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcs.1333
- Scully, A., & Wiss, K. (2014). Photographic Memory. The Whitman Journal of Psychology, 22(1), 40–41.
- University of Queensland. (2018, July 23). Where are memories stored in the brain? Queensland Brain Institute. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://qbi.uq.edu.au/brain-basics/memory/where-are-memories-stored#:~:text=For%20explicit%20memories%20%E2%80%93%20which%20are,the%20basal%20ganglia%20and%20cerebellum.