Friday, October 14, 2011

Eidetic Memory - A Mental Abnormality?

Most people have heard about individuals who can remember long lists of numbers, equations and pages of text while observing them for a only few minutes. These individuals are said to have photographic memories or eidetic memory. In the strictest sense, eidetic memory means having the capability of remembering detailed information about a complex image with great accuracy. These individuals are able to recall mental images in their minds as if they were looking at a photograph. This type of memory is highly controversial and if it exists is extremely rare in the population. Most of us are visual in our learning and in fact it is our strongest sense as humans however, this is not eidetic memory.

On this phenomenon there has been studies for over a hundred years making use of many experimental models to test if it really exists. Individuals who have exceptional memories have been tested only to find that they do not have photographic memories. Most of the studies have demonstrated that these individuals are good at processing large quantities of information but not producing the actual picture of what they were recalling. Most of these individuals were making use of learned information and organizing the new information based on that.

This is making use of some form of mnemonic device. With a little bit of training, we all have this ability. Most of the eidetic memory testing has had questionable designs so the results are inconclusive. Other reports of eidetic memory are by people who believe they have photographic memories and are not substantiated.

Perhaps you had the opportunity to see the movie Rain Man. The movie was based on a man named Kim Peek who had special abilities despite his low IQ and mental problems. He had Opitz-Kaveggia syndrome (FG syndrome) that is a genetic abnormality that is associated with the X chromosome. This person as facial deformities, large thumbs, big toes and flat feet along with brain malformations. He had the ability to read quickly. Kim learned the Portuguese language in about an hour. He was able to recite many books even many years later with incredible accuracy. It is reported that his mental library contained some 12,000 books. Amazing!

Even though many studies have been conducted to elucidate eidetic memory, very little is known about it. More often then not it has been associated with individuals who have mental abnormalities. This can be seen in autistic savants and FG syndrome. It is believed that eidetic memory is mostly found in children but is lost as they mature. One theory has it that as children develop verbal skills this interferes with eidetic imagery and they begin to lose this ability. Only further testing over time will tell if eidetic memory is real.

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