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Monday, August 4, 2014

Notes On The Elusive “Photographic Memory” (Improve your visual memory)

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If there were one intellectual pursuit I considered worth pursuing at a young age it was developing a photographic memory.

Imagine just how awesome it would be to look at a textbook page for a minute, and then remember the image of the textbook page like you could still see it. That means, you wouldn't even have to read the page. You could read the textbook page by looking at the image in your memory and reading it then. It would be amazing. That's the dream of a photographic memory.

A photographic memory is not just a good visual memory. It's a virtual reference folder of perfectly remembered pictures in your brain. Despite the salesman trying to tell you otherwise, this kind of memory has not been scientifically proven to exist.

The Science on Photographic Memory

There have been hundreds of studies looking for people with photographic memories as described above. The vast majority of those studies (particularly the more scientifically rigorous ones) have shown the traditional view of a photographic memory being almost complete bunk. That being said, the traditional view of photographic memory is very narrow.

Most people, do, in fact, have an amazing ability to remember certain images. Those images just aren't as beautifully accurate and accessible as the traditional view of a photographic memory would require.

For example, have you ever seen the face of a person you recognize but you still can't remember their name? That face is an image that's been stored in your brain. Despite that facial image being stored in your brain, you can't figure out when you stored the face and why it's being stored. You need to ask yourself question after question like, “Where do I know this person from?” Oftentimes, you still won't be able to figure the name out. That's our photographic memory's poor ability to archive the information. You can figure out the face is important but you don't know why.

On top of that, most people that recognize that face, still couldn't use that image of the person's face to draw the person without the real face for reference. Photographic memory seems to be more powerful on a subconscious level than a conscious one.

Faces aren't the only thing that brains are good at photographically memorizing though. Think biological requirements to narrow it down farther.

Ever been riding around somewhere out of town and realize you've been there before? You recognize a sign or something and it just clicks. Landmarks are also an example of the visual memory doing it's magic while not inviting you in to watch.
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The Magic Of Childhood

The closest thing to a photographic memory that science has actually proven is an eidetic memory. While a photographic memory is thought to be almost perfect, an eidetic memory is just a very good visual memory. The person may be able to remember an image with ~90% accuracy depending on the complexity.

Some people do have an eidetic memory. By some, I'm talking about a tiny minority of the population. Oftentimes, people with an eidetic memory don't even know they have it because it's that unimpressive. To them, it feels like they can just see things in their brain clearly. That might not even be noticeable because they never get the chance to compare their amazing visual memory to the average persons' blurry and narrow images.

An eidetic memory is something that nearly 10% of the population has while they're children but as they grow up, that eidetic memory starts to fade away. Many theorists suggest that's because the use of language eliminates the need for such precise images in the brain.

If we were to take that as a fact, it could be interesting to consider this possibility. Visual memory may actually be much less useful than the ability to memorize words. For example, let's say you see a guy kick someone. You have two ways of trying to remember the situation. One; you remember the image of the guy kicking someone. That memory includes tons of colors, streaming video, and provides very little context to the situation. Or two; you remember “That guy is a jerk,” or “That guy fights back.” Those are four words each and they can provide significantly more context than photo in that situation. 

Perhaps a visual memory isn't the most awesome thing in the world? You're regular memory just might be more useful.

How To Improve Your Visual Memory

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Spending years trying to figure out how to develop a photographic memory is awfully disappointing but it did come with a few perks. I was absolutely miserable with my visual memory before starting. I could barely get an image in my brain. I'm definitely not gifted in this respect but I was able to learn a few tricks for developing a more powerful visual memory.

First of all, focus on colors. The hardest point of memorizing an image for most people, is not understanding this basic formula. Colors are your vision. There is absolutely nothing else that you take in. Most people try to memorize an image through just closing their eyes and hoping. Instead of that, focus on getting the colors into the right spot. As soon as you can do that, you're on track to improve.

Developing the details over that color is where you're likely going to plateau many times. That is painfully difficult even  for people with an eidetic memory. Don't feel bad.

The next thing you need to worry about is conscious awareness. To remember an image, you need to consciously try and remember it. It seems pretty obvious but it's overlooked by a ton of people, usually, after they missed their chance to become consciously aware of it. For example, test day comes and they think, “Why didn't my visual memory store this?!?” while they never actually consciously tried. They just kind of hoped. That can kill the motivation for any practice in the future.

You can't expect to memorize pages of textbooks using your visual memory but you can do some useful things with it. While a full page might be overkill, it's very practical to visually remember diagrams that are important. Instead of thinking through a problem logically you can imagine the diagram in your head accurately and get 90% of the way there. That 90% still, usually, requires traditional study to get the precision. The visual memory is more of a honing mechanism than memory system in this case.

So, I'm sorry to disappoint you but don't expect to develop a magical photographic memory anytime soon. While you can improve your visual memory, don't let it get in the way of using the rest of your memory.

Do you want to know how you can get grades like you have a photographic memory? You know what I''m talking about: spending 10 minutes studying and still scoring high on the test. It's possible. It's not magic but with the right tools it can look like magic to an outsider.
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