Eidetic imagery is the closest scientifically-recognized concept to photographic memory. Some people—scientists call them "eidetikers"—are able to look at an image and take a mental picture of it. When the picture is removed, they report still being able to "see" it, colors and all.
Yet nearly all eidetikers are children. Testing for eidetic imagery in adults has turned up inconclusive or unrepeatable results. The most famous “proof” of eidetic imagery in adults comes from a scientist who later married his research subject and refused to allow anyone to test her again.
Most of us will never see a true eidetic image. But we can simulate the experience, improving memorization and overall knowledge management.
One way is via a 2,500-year-old Roman memory trick. The other is with image-based displays and searches, which are only now possible thanks to ever-advancing computer processing speeds.
The World's Memory Champions Don't Have Photographic Memories
If adults who could generate eidetic images did exist, you’d expect to find them among the competitors at the World Memory Championships. Champion memorizers perform insane feats like:
- Memorizing the exact order of 10 shuffled decks of cards in 20 minutes.
- Memorizing 1,080 random binary digits in 5 minutes.
- Memorizing 300 random words in 15 minutes.
Yet no champion of this long-running event has ever claimed to have photographic memory. What technique do champion memorizers use? They create makeshift eidetic imagery.
Method of loci is one name for this technique, another is the "memory palace" technique. A memory palace is an imaginary building full of images intended to represent whatever it is you are trying to remember. Usually the building is a familiar place, like your home.
It was invented by Roman orators to help them remember their speeches—and in the case of Cicero, Rome's most famous orator, there was a lot to remember; one of his speeches is more than 20,000 words long. The eidetic images they see aren't ones they’ve actually experienced, but ones they’ve invented themselves.
How To Build A Memory Palace
Let's say that, for some reason, you want to memorize the members of George Washington’s cabinet. Your memory palace might look something like this.
Imagine walking up to your home. Standing there, in full regalia, Henry VIII is knocking furiously on the door. This image will help you remember that Washington's Secretary of War was Henry Knox.
Next, envision yourself squeezing past Henry and into your home. You walk into your living room, which you’d see as full of doctors and nurses frantically rushing around. Your living room is now an emergency room, or E.R. Remembering those two letters jogs your memory, since Washington's attorney general was an E.R., too—Edmund Randolph.
You turn and walk toward your dining area. On top of the table, playing a spirited game of Twister, is the entire cast of the The Jeffersons. You remember the name of Washington's Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson.
You move toward the kitchen. Sitting on top of the stove is a steaming-hot ham. This image will help you remember Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.
The images that work the best are bizarre or vulgar ones, since these are the most memorable. What are you more likely to remember: The Jeffersons just standing around? Or The Jeffersons playing Twister?
Learning the technique doesn't seem to require any unique talent. Author Joshua Foer decided to learn the memory palace technique as background for an article he was writing about the American Memory Championships. Eventually he decided to enter the competition—and, to his surprise, won it. He wrote about his experience in the book Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, and describes it in this TED Talk.
Visual Representations At Work
Even if you don’t use any specific technique, research shows that eidetic imagery—or something like it—kicks in when you need it in your professional life. In controlled studies, chess grand masters could quickly reconstruct chess positions from memory, even if they’d seen them for only a few seconds.
However, when the pieces were jumbled in such a way that was unlikely in a competitive match, their recall was no better than that of a novice player.
The researchers concluded that the chess players’ experience of real matches helped them build a sort of mental map on which to overlay any plausible game situation.
You are probably building eidetic memories to help you in your work, too. If you're a developer, you see immediately when a line of code is out of place. A good editor will spot a typo on a Powerpoint presentation that everyone on the project missed. Designers internalize the principles of good layout, and can identify substandard web pages in an instant.
Now, technology can build eidetic memories for you.
The processing speed of modern computers allows complex data to be recalled and displayed visually in programs like Google Analytics and Tableau. These products help you more easily visualize and build knowledge—but what do you do once you've closed the screen? You have to be able to find that knowledge again.
Our product, Atlas Recall, makes eidetic imagery a reality, by remembering everything you view on your screen. Every Word document, web page you visit, calendar invite you view—all are captured, the way you saw them in that moment.
When you need to find that file or page again, you don't need to try to figure out what folder it's in. Just visualize it. If you can recall anything about it—a single word that appeared in the text, or documents you viewed at the same time—Atlas Recall can show you images of all the documents that match.These are representations of actual images you've seen before. For the first time, adults can access true eidetic imagery. No memory tricks required.