Who doesn’t want a photographic memory?? I mean, I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday! Having a photographic memory would be super convenient – when was the last time you successfully did your grocery shopping from memory because you left the list on the counter? So what exactly is a photographic memory, and how can you get one? We’re going to tell you!
What would our lives be without memories? We would be empty shells of ourselves. All of the experiences we’ve had, people we’ve met, and places we’ve traveled that have all worked to shape us into who we are – all of that would be gone! We would barely have personalities or opinions. We wouldn’t know our family or friends. Our lives would be lived in small forgettable moments. Doesn’t sound like much of a life!
Scientifically speaking, a photographic memory, also known as an eidetic memory, is the ability to recall images from memory really vividly and precisely after only seeing an image a few times – for short periods of time – without using a mnemonic device. You’ve probably used a mnemonic device to study for a test in school. A good old classic example of a mnemonic device is Roy G. Biv, used to remember the colors – and order of those colors – of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. The last part of the definition of a photographic memory is key though – if you use mnemonic devices often, you probably do not have a photographic memory. Sorry!
There is quite a debate among scientists about photographic memory. Some scientists say that you can’t develop a photographic memory, and that those rare individuals who do have one are born with the ability. This branch of thought also says that a photographic memory is mostly found in children, rather than adults. Others say, with a lot of work, you can develop a photographic memory, or at least come very close, at any age. There are basic exercises that will improve any memory, like playing cards (the card game Solitaire, for instance, is a good memory-booster), reading, and using all of your senses – not just sight and sound – when learning something new that you want to remember.
Flashcards are also a good method to use when you need to improve your memory. We have, of course, a short-term memory, and a long-term memory. To achieve a photographic memory, you should work on improving your short-term memory first. Then new information will be turned into long-term memory more quickly and efficiently. There are thousands of online tests that will help you gauge just how good your memory is. Just make sure the test is based on scientific data. These online memory tests are a good place to start.
You know, there are actually memory champions around the world who participate in memory competitions – who knew that was a thing?? Some of these champions can memorize up to 32 decks of cards – their order, color, number or face, and the suit. How amazing is that?! They all have their own methods of jogging and improving their photographic memories. One very popular method is to grab a deck of cards; these can be regular playing cards, or even an Uno deck. Pick three cards out of the deck and memorize them. Once you have them memorized, stick them back in the deck at random. Spread out the deck, face up, and try to pick out your original three cards, and lay them out in the same order that you drew them. Do this little exercise with three cards every day for a week. Then increase the cards you draw to five, ten, fifteen, and so on until you can do this with the whole deck! It is possible! The downside? To get really good at it, you have to do this exercise every day for a whole year. I warned you that developing a photographic memory would take a lot of work!
The most famous and widely used method to improve memory is known as The Memory Palace. This method even dates back to ancient times, so humankind has been using it, well, pretty much for forever! The Memory Palace first appeared in Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium. (Cicero was one of ancient Rome’s most famous and respected philosophers. He probably knows what he’s talking about, right?) It turns out that there is actually a method to our human memory madness. According to memory champion Joshua Foer, we are terrible at remembering random lists, whether it’s our grocery list, a list of numbers, or a list of letters intended for spelling.
Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers: they didn’t have to remember the kinds of things we do in our modern day – like phone numbers or the names and faces of random people at a party. Our ancestors had to remember how and where to find food. This meant knowing which trails to take to food and water sources, which plants could be eaten and which ones were poisonous, and how to find their way home again. What does all of this have to do with our modern human brain? Well, we evolved to have an excellent spatial memory: we are great at memorizing places, what they look like, and their geographical layout. Our memory is very vision-oriented.
So…the trick is figuring out how to turn hard things to remember into easy things to remember by memorizing them in the right format; that is, in a way that is easy and natural for our brains. Even though it’s now 2019, we still have our ancient hunter-gatherer selves in the network of our brains. Enter: The Memory Palace.
Think of a building you know really well – perhaps your childhood home, school, or Grandma’s house. Now, take the things you want to remember – like a grocery list or phone number – and associate it with an image. Our minds tend to remember things that are funny, gross, or bizarre. For example, associate those apples on your grocery list with a hilarious picture of you as a kid that’s still hanging on the wall at your childhood home. Each item should go with an image. This is called “constructing your palace.” The last step is “placing” your items around your palace. Let’s use the childhood home and grocery list example. Think of the route you would take every single day through your childhood home to get up to your bedroom.
Say you walk in the front door and wipe your shoes on the rug by the front door with the pattern of rabbits on it. You always thought that rug was weird…oh yeah, you need to pick up carrots! You head up the stairs and glance at that goofy school picture and laugh at yourself…oh right, you need apples too! The item you need to remember should somehow easily associate with the image, like in the example above: rabbits and carrots, school photo and apples. Time to recall your grocery list? Take a walk through your palace in your mind’s eye. Stop and look at your images. The items that you need to remember should come to mind! This takes practice, of course, but it’s easy to test yourself. Just be brave enough to visit the grocery store without a list!
Here is an interesting tidbit: there are other things you can do to naturally boost your memory other than flashcards and memory quizzes. Of course, good exercise and keeping the blood flowing helps every part of your body, including the brain. But did you know that you can also boost your memory by eating certain foods?! The term “brain food” exists for a reason – count me in!
Fatty fish is almost always at the top of “brain food” lists. These are fish such as trout, salmon, and sardines. These fish are high in Omega 3 fats, which 60% of your brain is already made of. Eating these fish build brain cells, and we need that Omega 3 for learning and keeping our memory sharp. Coffee (thank goodness!) is also on this memory-booster list. When consumed in healthy amounts, the caffeine in coffee boosts our mood and concentration, making the brain open to taking in new information. Blueberries, and other dark-colored berries, are full of antioxidants that are essential to the whole body, but especially to the brain. These antioxidants act as anti-inflammatory agents, keeping our brain from aging and becoming forgetful. Pumpkin seeds and other nuts, turmeric, and green tea are also great for keeping a sharp memory.
So what shouldn’t you eat to keep your brain healthy and memory thriving? Well, a few of them are obvious – avoid fried foods, fast food, and foods high in sodium to keep your brain healthy and your memory in working order. These foods can be inflammatory to the brain, causing it to age. Refined carbs – white breads and pastas, some cereals, white rice – are also bad for your overall brain health. These foods are often dense, full of sugar, and high in carbs, which can cause a spike in blood sugar. Scientists have found that there is a correlation between high blood sugar and brain health. Your memory will undoubtedly suffer if you eat a lot of refined carbs. Choose whole wheat products instead! I don’t know about you, but now I’m hungy!