Wednesday, October 1, 2003

Many people would give anything to be able to take mental snapshots of life that could be recalled at any moment, but the idea of having a photographic memory is misunderstood, says Dr. Barry Gordon, professor of neurology and cognitive science at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore. He is the author of “Intelligent Memory.”

“It’s a misconception,” he says. “It’s a bit overblown, that there are people walking around that remember everything perfectly.”

Many people have excellent memories, especially in specific areas, but the common notion of photographic memory is a falsehood. Although some individuals may have better memories than others, their accounts usually are not without error. Further, experts are unsure how human memory works, but most of them believe it can be improved with practice.

“Even people with extraordinarily good memories are usually extraordinarily good in one area,” Dr. Gordon says. “One person could remember everything he had ever read, but he couldn’t recognize someone’s wife.”

The most popular example of what is commonly thought of as photographic memory was documented by a Russian neuropsychologist, Aleksandr Romanovich Luria in “The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book About Vast Memory,” says Dr. Kimford Meador, professor and chairman of the department of neurology at Georgetown University Hospital in Northwest.

In the book, first published in 1968 by Basic Books, Mr. Luria tells the story of a man identified only as “S” with whom he worked for decades. Most people with this level of memory have never been studied. Mr. Luria documented how S stored vast amounts of information through images. However, even S made mistakes. The book was reprinted in 1988 by Harvard University Press.

Further, although S had a remarkable memory, he had difficulties with daily life. Dr. Meador says the subject ended up working as a taxi driver in Moscow. The skill, which would have been handy during a game of trivia, didn’t help “S” with practical activities.

In fact, sometimes, the best way the brain helps individuals is to forget unimportant information or bad experiences. If someone remembered each detail of every day, it more than likely would be enough to drive the person crazy.

“You would think that someone with such a fantastic memory would go far in life, but it was too much,” Dr. Meador says. “He seemed to be overwhelmed by the memories that rushed in.”

Eidetic imagery, in which people can retain an exact image for a period of time, often is confused with the idea of photographic memory, says Alan Searleman, a professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. He holds a doctorate in psychology.

The images created by this ability differ from regular visual memories in that they are not simply long afterimages. They also are not the common visual images most people can create on request. Further, eidetic images cannot be retrieved once they have faded.

For instance, if a person looks at a picture for 30 seconds and the photograph is taken away, people with eidetic imagery can recall the picture as if it were still in front of them with few mistakes. This image usually lasts only for about a minute or two after the item is removed from the person’s sight. It is most common in children ages 5 or 6.

“They can count blades of grass or leaves on a tree,” he says. “There are some people who are extraordinary at it. It’s very rare in adults.”

Experts suggest that children lose the ability for eidetic imagery as they grow older because they learn to store information in better ways, Mr. Searleman says. Because a person doesn’t have to process what is being viewed with eidetic imagery, it is essentially an inefficient way of remembering details.

“Mentally retarded people tend to have eidetic imagery more often than you’d expect,” Mr. Searleman says. “If you’re mentally retarded, you don’t have access to more sophisticated ways of encoding information.”

Although it is unlikely that eidetic imagery can be learned, a person’s overall memory can be improved with discipline, says Brad Davis, president of Mercury Learning Systems in Circle Pines, Minn. He created Memory Magic computer games, based on the learning techniques of Makoto Shichida, a Japanese child developmental expert.

Even though the activities won’t give someone the ability to remember every detail of life, Mr. Davis hopes they will increase a person’s general aptitude for storing necessary images.

“Greeks used visual metaphors to remember large quantities of information,” Mr. Davis says. “That’s why they were able to sit for two or three hours to communicate to the masses. They used visual memory to remember the next part of their speeches.”

Further, many geniuses envisioned great inventions before they were created, Mr. Davis says. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci saw mental images of the helicopter and then completed plans for it.

“He was drawing them out of the genius that lies within him,” Mr. Davis says. “Everyone has the potential for genius.”

The hippocampus, the part of the brain that allows a person to put together fragments of information, seems to play an orchestrating role in human memory, says Dr. Marsel Mesulam, professor of neurology and psychiatry at Northwestern University in Chicago.

The area of the body works like the directory of a computer. If a computer is damaged, the information may still be on the hard disk of the machine, but it can’t be accessed. Apart from this general understanding of memory, experts are unsure how it works.

“We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of how the brain deals with memory,” Dr. Mesulam says, “but photographic memory is a misnomer.”

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