Can You Really Have a Photographic Memory?

While popular in movies and pop culture, the real answer is a little bit more complicated.

Imagine being able to recite every word of a book you just read or having the ability to draw a sea of skyscrapers in meticulous detail after taking a brief flight over it—or being able to perfectly recall an image after 25 years. These superhuman abilities have been coined as photographic memory where someone can recall information in mint condition. But, is it a real thing?

Can you really have a photographic memory?

The short answer is no, you really can’t have a photographic memory. “While the possibility of someone having a photographic memory is fascinating, there is no scientific proof to suggest that it actually exists. It has yet to be backed up by anything other than anecdotal evidence,” said Madison Eubanks, a clinical psychiatrist and contributor for EndThrive.

But, eidetic memory is the closest thing to a photographic memory. After multiple exposures to an image, people with eidetic memory can vividly recall images with incredible precision for a short amount of time. “You can think of eidetic memory as ‘flash memory’ where you’re only shown something for a short period of time (for example, 30 seconds) but you’re able to describe the object in detail as soon as you look away,” Eubanks said. 

Over the course of ten years, researcher Ralph Norman Haber studied the memories of elementary-school-aged children. The study illustrated that eidetic memory surfaces in a “small percentage of children 6 to 12 years old, and [is] virtually nonexistent in adults.” Astonishingly, children with eidetic memory talked about the image in the present tense—as if it was still right in front of their face. If you’re not blessed with this memory, these mnemonic devices will help you remember anything. 

How did they do this? Speaking in the present tense (“The photo shows a snow-capped mountain with a white goat dangling off the side”) suggests that they were holding the image in their brain, not recalling it. Although a slim number of people have this ability, here are the 5 types of memory everyone has and why they matter. And, why don’t adults seem to have eidetic memory? “Children possess far more capacity for eidetic memory than adults, suggesting that a developmental change (such as acquiring language skills) may disrupt the potential for eidetic imagery,” Andy Hudmon writes in his book, Learning and Memory.  

How are eidetic and photographic memory different?

What differentiates a hypothetical photographic memory from eidetic memory is time and total accuracy. If photographic memory were to exist, those with a photographic memory could recall things perfectly whenever they please, but eidetic memory lasts briefly—sometimes with error. Photographic memory wouldn’t fade. It’s the ability to recall images forever, as if they’ve been permanently stored inside your brain. On the other hand, eidetic memories only last for a limited period of time—minutes, hours, days—until they ultimately fade away,” Eubanks said. Looking to improve your own memory? Try incorporating one of these everyday habits of people with impressive memories.  

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Isabelle Tavares
Isabelle Tavares is a journalism graduate student at the Newhouse School of Syracuse University and former ASME intern for, where she wrote for the knowledge, travel, culture and health sections. Her work has been published in MSN, The Family Handyman, INSIDER, among others. Follow her on Twitter @isabelletava.