I was giving a guest lecture to a high school psychology class on learning and memory. After getting through much of the content, the class instructor asked if I would talk about strategies for student success in college. As some students perked up, one student exclaimed, “well, ‘Mike’ doesn’t have to worry about learning how to study because he has a PHOTOGRAPHIC memory.” I felt two waves of emotion: First, I sensed relief among some of the students. This comment of a superior and somewhat magical memory meant they were off the hook, didn’t it? They simply do not have the ‘special ability’ and so why try? Second, was the feeling of weariness I had over having to address the statement.
The student brought up one of the many misconceptions about human behavior. A small untruth pointing to the larger issue of Psychology’s Image Problem. Psychology, unlike other sciences, often runs into the problem of confusing common sense with fact. Every one of us has motivations, emotions, and thoughts which make each person an expert on their own life and more likely than not, we use this experience to view the world. We are less likely to do this with Chemistry, Biology, and Physics, although ideas about gravity, chemical reactions, and metabolic processes, also occur within us or around us.
Try it out — Tonight at dinner (assuming you are not only talking to 3-year olds or other psychologists) bring up the idea that opposites attract or that most adults experience a mid-life crisis. You’ll likely find yourself a lively discussion filled with examples and stories affirming these beliefs. But, like the student talking about the PHOTOGRAPHIC memory, your beliefs are wrong.
So what has gone wrong? The student likely has a strong visual memory. He, like all of us, relies on details from images to remember. This is referred to as eidetic memory or visual memory. We all benefit from relying on images to remember. For example, memory champions (yes, there are national and world-wide competitions on memory) use detailed and bizarre ideas and attempt to create a “visual image” to help them remember. Joshua Foer, journalist and author of, Moonwalking with Einstein
has widely discussed the benefits of imagery to best remember. In his Ted talk he brilliantly describes remembering his talk by linking characters like Britney Spears, Cookie Monster, and characters from the Wizard of Oz to places in his home. This is a method which has been used for centuries to recall called the Method of Loci. Without getting too bogged down with the method though consider the importance of remembering the interviewer’s name at a job interview. You’d do anything to avoid the embarrassment of finishing the interview, shaking her hand, and not being able to REMEMBER HER NAME!
One strategy is to use image-based features to remember. Pick a feature on her face or something she is wearing to focus on. Quickly incorporate it into her name. Or use her name in a silly, cartoon-like scenario. Come up with a….once you see it you can’t un-see it type of image. If you are feeling less creative, simply say it back to her right away, then again using any image you’ve come up with.
It is actually useful for all of us to rely heavily on mental pictures as we learn. However, research has well-documented that what we come up with is not a perfect match to the original image. We don’t have exact replicas of pictures in our mind. Research on a phenomenon called ‘flashbulb’ memory in which we remember specific details of a particular memorable event (e.g., JFK’s death, events surrounding 9/11) further shows that our mental images are not perfect and change often. Researchers tested people months and years after these events to find that they confuse details and lose accuracy like any other memory.
The truth is that it takes work to have a good memory. Joshua Foer, the journalist described above actually won the USA Memory Championship one year. Like most of us however, some days he cannot remember where he parked his car. Psychology researchers like Dr. Anders Ericsson have well-established that it take effort and use of mental strategies (like creating acronyms, using images, elaborating on the situation with something you know well) to best remember.
Next time someone tells you they know someone with a Photographic memory please don’t believe them. Instead start a discussion about strategies they use to help them remember best. Chances are you can share tips to help them remember too.