MadSci Network: NeuroScience

Re: What is the basis behind a photographic memory?

Area: NeuroScience
Posted By: Michael Freed, Aerospace Human Factors, NASA Ames Research Center
Date: Thu Jun 19 19:22:11 1997
Area of science: NeuroScience
ID: 865745300.Ns

What is the basis behind a photographic memory?


Scientists who study memory phenomena generally believe that eidetic
memory (more popularly known as "photographic memory") does not exist.
Early experiements on eidetic memory were intriguing, but could not be

People do show extraordinary memory performance in certain
circumstances.  For example, expert chess players can typically play
blindfolded chess against several opponents at the same time, easily
memorizing many chessboard configurations.  Others use special tricks
to memorize long lists of randomly selected numbers.

Impressive as these feats are, scientists attribute them to
specialized ways of thinking about the information, not to any kind of
enhanced visual memory.  One interesting experiment that makes this
point was performed by a cognitive psychologist named DeGroot.

Expert chess players were shown a chess board with pieces on it for a
brief period, such as 15 seconds, and then asked to reconstruct what
they had seen on a new chess board.  That is, they were asked to place
chess pieces in the same positions as they had appeared on the board
they'd been shown.  The expert players were very good at this, much
better than novice players.  One hypothesis was that the experts had
developed an enhanced ability to memorize visual information.

In the next experiment, the expert chess players were asked to do the
very same thing; butt this time, they were shown boards whose pieces
were arranged in ways that would never actually occur in a game of
chess.  Not only did their ability to remember the positions go down,
but it went down all the way to the level of the novice players.  We
can conclude that the original, enhanced performance at remembering
chess positions came from the experts' ability to mentally organize
the information they had observed, not from any ability to
"photograph" the visual scene.

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