Amazon's personal assistant device, the Echo (also known as Alexa), may soon be getting a very interesting upgrade — one that allows it to tell you stories from your life based on photos you show it. Of course, the idea of a "photographic memory" has been intriguing to us non-robots since photography was invented, probably. But does it really exist? And if your memory is, shall we say, not so photographic, is there anything you can do to improve it — without Alexa's help?
Let's start with how memory works (and doesn't work): We tend to think of our memory like a camera, recording things exactly as they happen but losing details as time goes on. If only we could just capture all those details and hold on to them forever, right? Well, sadly, wrong.
Our memory is more like "attention in the past tense," as some psychologists like to say. That means that what you're paying attention to right now is what you're likely to remember in the future — and your very creative and efficient brain is going to fill in the rest.
That selective attention — and being selective about what gets filtered into long-term storage — helps you conserve your mental resources and really just kind of makes sense. After all, there's no need to remember what you had for breakfast three weeks ago unless it was a particularly life-changing plate of avocado toast, for instance. On the other hand, this is why our memory can at times be fragile — or at least not quite as reliable as we might hope: Maybe that avocado toast was freakin' mind-blowing, but you only remember the view from the patio of the restaurant, not the restaurant's name. Or maybe you never even ate the avocado toast — you just remember your friend telling you about her avocado toast but your mind has co-opted that story as your own (a.k.a. you've created a false memory).
When we say someone has a "photographic memory," we don't really mean they're remembering every little detail about something as if they were looking at a photograph — our brains simply don't work that way, even on the best of days. And, according to decades of research investigating the concept, there's no conclusive evidence that even those #blessed few with the most impressive memory abilities have minds that operate like cameras.
For starters, people who claim to have photographic memories don't really hold up to scientific scrutiny — they're rarely, if ever, able to reproduce those results in front of a researcher. Other people who are true savants, such as Kim Peek, the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman's character in the movie Rain Man, may have exceptional abilities, but still aren't recalling things in 100% perfect detail.
Instead, what we colloquially call a "photographic memory" is more likely to be what researchers call "eidetic memory," explains Alan Searleman, PhD, in Scientific American. People with this rare skill describe seeing photo-like afterimages in their mind of something they've just looked at. They are, therefore, able to recall minute details in testing situations. According to Dr. Searleman, it's estimated that up to 10% of children are able to do this, but the phenomenon is less common among adults. Still, even they aren't remembering every single thing they see — their brains still fill in the gaps in not totally accurate ways.
So how does one go about getting a memory that's as close to "photographic" as possible? Well, if you haven't already developed eidetic memory, you're probably not going to, sorry. However, there are some visual memory tricks you can use to improve your day-to-day recall abilities. For instance, you can try to add a visual element when you're tasked with remembering a bunch of names (e.g. "Fred" sounds like "bread," so when you meet him, imagine Fred's silly face in between two slices of your favorite loaf). Or, as Sherlock taught us, build yourself a "memory palace" in which you associate all the things you have to do in a day, or everything you need to buy at the bodega, with a vivid visual decoration in a specific area in your imaginary home.
Sadly, there's no evidence that "brain training" apps like Lumosity really help here. In fact, the company behind Lumosity was ordered to pay £1.6 million last year to settle charges from the Federal Trade Commission that the app's memory-boosting claims were unfounded and misleading.
Luckily, in addition to the more tried-and-true tricks, you can keep your memory sharp by getting enough sleep, exercise, and nutritious foods. Remember: Your memory doesn't have to be photographic to be "good" — it just has to work.