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Photographic Memory: Nootropics and Mnemonic Devices 101

Photographic memory, or eidetic memory, is the ability to vividly recall images after seeing them for a short period of time. A Google search shows over 16.000 results for “photographic memory nootropics”. Of all the articles I read, no one of them answer the fundamental question: Does photographic memory exist, and is it possible to achieve with a combination of mnemonic techniques, training, and nootropics?

What is Photographic Memory?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary[1]

Eidetic is the technical adjective used to describe what we more commonly call a photographic memory. The word ultimately derives from the Greek noun eidos, meaning “form.” The ability of certain individuals to recall images, sounds, or events with uncanny accuracy is a subject of fascination for researchers in the field of psychology. Among notable people who were reputed to have eidetic memories is the late television comic Jackie Gleason, who reportedly was able to memorize an entire half-hour script in a single read-through.[2]

There are only two case studies of eidetic memory in scientific research. Let’s take a quick look at them.

Case 1: The Mind of a Mnemonist

The first case study of a subject with an “incredible” (photographic?) memory was published in a Russian medical journal in the 1960s by psychologist Alexander Luria.

Alexander Luria was a famous Russian psychologist active in the mid-1900s. In the early days of his career, he met a young man named Solomon Shereshevsky. Shereshevky, — or simply ‘S.’, the acronym used in Luria’s writings — was a Russian reporter working for a local newspaper. Each morning the editor would meet with the staff to hand them a rather long list of assignments. Solomon was able to memorize the entire list by looking at the sheet of paper just once.

Solomon Shereshevsky Photographic Memory Nootropics
Solomon Shereshevsky

Even though he was not a brilliant student due to his shy nature, when S. was a schoolboy he could memorize every single thing he read without ever taking notes. Intrigued, Luria took S. to his lab and, over the course of several months, tested his memory using all kinds of complex mathematical formulas and rare languages. Once, he read him the first four lines of Dante’s La Divina Commedia in Italian, a language he could not understand, and he was able to recite it in a matter of seconds.

On the basis of the research’s findings, Luria diagnosed S. with a rare form of synesthesia, called ideasthesia.

Ideasthesia is a phenomenon in which letters, numbers, and other visual objects evoke a “perception”-like experience. Since humans are hardwired to memorize visual concepts more efficiently than letters or numbers, an individual with ideasthesia can memorize characters, numbers, and symbols after viewing them for a couple seconds

The theory of this phenomenon closely resembles the idea behind the Method of Loci (more on that later), a technique used by mnemonists to memorize many different chunks of information that would otherwise be difficult to memorize.

So what kind of visual perceptions did the Divine Comedy evoke?

The first line, Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, he rendered into images this way: Nel, Nel’skaya, a ballerina; mezzo, she is together with (Russian vmeste) a man; del, there is a pack of Deli cigarettes near them; cammin, a fireplace (Russian kamin) is also close by; di, a hand is pointing toward a door (Russian dver); nos, a man has fallen and gotten his nose (Russian nos) pinched in a doorway (Russian tra); vita, the man steps over a child, a sign of life — vitalism; and so on, for 48 syllables.[3]

In 1968, after S.’s death, Luria published a book of his findings, The Mind of a Mnemonist. He wrote it for a non-scientific audience and I recommend it to anyone. The translated version can be easily found on the web with a quick Google search.

Case 2: The Girl with Eidetic Memory

Fast forward to the 1970s. A Harvard scientist named Charles Stromeyer III publishes a paper about a girl with an incredible ability. He gave her a sheet of paper with a pattern of 10,000 random dots, and the next day another random pattern with a different layout.

The girl was able to fuse the pattern in his mind and form a stereogram, which she saw as a three-dimensional image floating above the surface. A couple of days later, when questioned by the researcher, she could draw each pattern with astonishing accuracy.

The case study of Elizabeth – this is the name of the girl – was published in Nature. However, in a comical turn of events, the researcher later married the girl, and she was never tested again.

dot pattern photographic memory
A random dot pattern like the one given to Elizabeth

A couple of years later, in 1979, a researcher named John Merrit published the results of an eidetic memory test he had placed in magazines all over the country. After seeing Elizabeth results, he had hoped that someone might come forward and prove, once and for all, the existence of photographic memory. He figured that over 1 million people had tried the test. However, of the 30 people that were able to correctly figure it out, he went on to visit 15 of them, and nobody could repeat the experiment with the scientist looking over his/her shoulders.

So how was Elizabeth able to succeed in the test? Did she have some weird memory superpower?
Some say that the Elizabeth study was not real, but rather a silly prank between friends that got out of hand. nthomas from the Straight Dope forum explains it:[4]

When I was in a graduate seminar on the psychology of memory (about 16 years ago, at a major university) I was told by the professor, an expert in the field, that the “discovery” was, in fact, a hoax. As he told the story, “Elizabeth” was actually the girlfriend of the researcher, who had been talking to her about his interest in eidetic imagery. He had a reputation, however, for being rather gullible, and, for a joke, she, and a group of his other friends, cooked up a fake demonstration of her amazing eidetic powers. He was completely taken in, and became very excited at his amazing “discovery”. But before “Elizabeth” and her friends had the time (or maybe the heart) to let the victim in on the joke, things had got out of hand, and the discovery was already well known, and, before long, published.
The etiquette of scientific publication would make it difficult to get a story like this into the formal record, and, anyway, psychologists probably do not want it too widely known how easily they can be taken in. (Perhaps, also, people were reluctant to ruin the career of the poor, duped but not dishonest, researcher.)
[…]I got the impression from my professor that the hoax story was quite well known amongst memory researchers. Furthermore, my impression is that psychological opinion over whether eidetic imagery (as distinct from the ordinary, relatively unreliable, memory imagery, that nearly everyone experiences) really exists, is still much more divided than Cecil seems to believe. It may be the majority opinion that it is real, but a respectable minority of researchers have their doubts. The amazing abilities of “Elizabeth” do still occasionally get mentioned in the reputable psychological literature, however. Some serious scientists do seem to believe it. I myself am no longer sufficiently close to the “in group” of memory psychologists to have heard the hoax story again, or to check out how widely it is known or believed.

So there you have it: the only recorded case of a genuine photographic memory among ordinary human beings is, very likely, a hoax.

Kim Peek Super Memory
Kim Peek

That’s not to said that there aren’t folks with a really good memory. Kim Peek, the famous savant who was the inspiration behind Rain Man, could supposedly memorize each page of a 9,000+ page book, reading at a rate of 8 to 12 seconds per page (with each eye reading its own page). This has not been thoroughly tested, however.

The American actress and author Marilu Henner, on the other hand, can supposedly remember every day of his life. Again, this has not been tested in a clinical setting, and may just be a symptom of an obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Another savant, Stephen Wiltshire, has been called the “human camera” for his ability to draw objects around him several minutes (to hours) after having seen them for the first time. However, again, as precise he is, he takes liberties, so it is not clear if he truly has a “photographic” memory, but he’s the closest to it.

Stephen Wiltshire Eidetic Memory
Stephen Wiltshire

How to Develop Photographic Memory

Solomon, Kim, and Stephen are truly fascinating cases, but they are not normal guys – they have very rare abilities. So, can a normal human being develop photographic memory or the closest thing to it?

The answer is No. Photographic memory can’t be achieved, not even with nootropics. However, by taking nootropics and learning a few techniques, we can develop an exceptional memory. Let’s see how.

Memory: What is It, How to Improve it

There are several stages of memory formation: memory acquisition/encoding, working memory/short-term memory, long-term memory/consolidation, memory retrieval, and reconsolidation.

Five major pathways are essential for the formation, retrieval and reconsolidation of memory: dopamine, choline,AMPA, norepinephrine and adrenergic receptors, and neurotrophic factors (BDNF, GDNF, NGF).

  • Choline is essential for short-term memory and memory consolidation
  • Dopamine helps focus, motivation and general cognition[5]
  • Norepinephrine is a memory modulator[6] and it’s essential for memory retrieval[7]
  • AMPA improves synaptic plasticity and strengthen synapses
  • BDNF is important for long-term memory[8], learning, and synaptogenesis[9]

NGF is also important for neurons health and memory — but only in old subjects, as it actually impaired memory when given to young rats[10], so we’re not going to focus on it too much. Same for norepinephrine and adrenergic receptors, GDNF, Sigma, cAMP, PKA, CRE, CREBs and other minor neurotransmitters/neuromodulators.

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