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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.

References   [ + ]

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Best Nootropics for ADD & ADHD: 10 Alternatives to Adderall®

WARNING: The substances mentioned in this article are not approved by the FDA, we only list them for information purposes. They should NOT, and I repeat NOT, be used as replacements for a true and tested ADHD treatment. Our website and all the websites listed in this article are not responsible for errors, omissions, or for any outcomes related to the use of the contents of this article.

Attention Deficit Disorder with or without hyperactivity (ADD, ADHD) is one of the most commonly diagnosed disorders in children between 6 and 12 years of age. It is especially problematic for those attending school, as it adds an extra barrier that both students and teachers must overcome. There are various popular forms of medication in the amphetamine class used to treat these attention disorders. These medications are typically quite effective in alleviating attention deficits, but they carry with them the possibility of addiction and dependence.[1]

Attention Deficit Disorders

Two of the most commonly used drugs for the treatment of ADHD in children and adolescents are Adderall (amphetamine/dextroamphetamine) and Ritalin (methylphenidate).[2] Many people seek alternatives to classical stimulants because they know of potential adverse effects or want to avoid using potent phenethylamine derivatives on their own children or themselves. For this reason, we will investigate the potential benefits of nootropics in the treatment of attention disorders.

The most common nootropics that people use as alternatives to amphetamines are racetam drugs, modafinil and noopept. These nootropics have been demonstrated to have positive effects on cognition, but it is necessary to personalize treatment for each individual, evaluating if the course of treatment is actually working for them. It should be noted that the onset and duration of action of nootropics (as well as their effectiveness) can vary greatly. It would be wise to keep a journal where you take notes about the dosage and administration of nootropics you are using. Many nootropic drugs can take more than a week to establish their full effect, and dosages may need to be adjusted to achieve maximum effect.

Not all nootropics will ultimately be beneficial to those who suffer from attention deficits. However, many nootropics are well-known for their ability to improve cognition, motivation, and concentration.[3] Always consult your doctor before making adjustments to medication. Because most cognitive supplements and nootropics are stable and safe to use indefinitely, individuals who fear health risks or addiction to amphetamines may want to consider using nootropics as an alternative form of treatment.

Top 10 Nootropics for ADD & ADHD

These are the best nootropics for Attention Deficit Disorder with or without Hyperactivity, according to scientific studies and our anecdotal experience. As we frequently say in the nootropics community, your mileage may vary.

Piracetam

piracetam nootropic adhdPiracetam is considered by many to be the father of all nootropic drugs. It has a history of being used to treat dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease and other cognitive diseases that come with old age. Most research conducted on piracetam has come to the consensus that it does not have much effect on individuals who are not experiencing cognitive decline. For this reason, piracetam does not seem like an ideal alternative treatment for attention deficits. However, piracetam is extremely safe to take, and supplementation by anyone will help prevent cognitive decline before it even starts. Thus, it might be worthwhile to take piracetam alongside another medication on this list. One small study mentions a combination of atomoxetine (an ADHD medication) and Piracetam.[4][5]

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Noopept

Noopept11Noopept is a favorite among nootropic users due to its ability to improve cognition and increase the ability to focus. Although it is not technically a racetam, due to the fact that it does not contain a pyrrolidone nucleus, it is still quite similar in structure and effects. Noopept is commonly touted as having an effective dose 1000 times smaller than that or piracetam.[6] There is not very much information out there about noopept as a treatment for ADD, but experts at the Second International Congress on ADHD noted that noopept may be a very good alternative medication for attention deficits.[7] Many anecdotal reports from users have found that noopept is helpful for maintaining focus and concentration for extended periods of time.

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Phenylpiracetam

Phenylpiracetam nootropic for adhdPhenylpiracetam is a derivative of piracetam that has an additional phenyl group. It is noticeably more stimulating than piracetam, as well as more potent. An 800 mg dose of piracetam is comparable to about 100 mg of phenylpiracetam. It has been found to be effective at improving cognition and produces stimulation that may translate to improved focus.[8][9] One drawback of phenylpiracetam is that it cannot be used indefinitely, as tolerance develops relatively quickly. However, this might make it useful to cycle with another nootropic compound, or to use a few times a week alongside something else like noopept.

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Pramiracetam

pramistar-nootropic-pramiracetamPramiracetam is another derivative of piracetam. It is not as well researched as some of the more popular racetams, but it has a lot of potential as a cognitive enhancer. While there is no research that specifically addresses the issue of attention in the traditional sense, pramiracetam demonstrated and ability to help reverse scopolamine-induced attention deficits in humans[10], and anecdotal experiences on the web show that it’s effective in young subjects with ADD, but not in those with normal “baseline” performance. Even though pramiracetam still needs to see more research before anything definitive can be said, the fact that it is considered safe to use opens up the possibility of personal experimentation.

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Memantine

Memantine NootropicMemantine is another drug commonly used to treat cognitive decline, such as moderate and severe Alzheimer’s Disease. Memantine works on the glutamatergic system as an antagonist to NMDA receptors, which works to combat excitotoxicity. One of the benefits of Memantine is that it avoid the development of tolerance to a number of substances, including stimulants, caffeine, cannabis, alcohol and so on. It is therefore frequently combined with stimulants to reduce their neurotoxic effects as well as reducing tolerance to the positive effects of Adderall and Ritalin. Some research has been done on memantine’s possible effectiveness in treating ADHD (by itself, not in combination). One study found that memantine was fairly beneficial for alleviating symptoms of ADHD, but concluded that there is not enough evidence to draw any real conclusions.[11] Because of this, memantine could be a good choice to use in low doses alongside another substance on this. It must be noted that memantine acts as a dissociative at supratherapeutic doses, so proceed with caution.

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Modafinil

provigil-modafinilModafinil is a wakefulness-promoting (eugeroic) drug that is classified in many places as a prescription medication. Armodafinil, a closely related drug, consists of only the active (−)-(R)-enantiomer of modafinil, meaning it is theoretically more potent. Because of this, both drugs work in a similar fashion. Modafinil has shown a good amount of promise as an alternative treatment of ADD/ADHD. One study conducted on children found that 48% of the participants felt a significant improvement in attentive skills while on modafinil.[12] Multiple other studies have found that modafinil provides moderate increases in cognition, memory, and motivation.[13] Although modafinil’s mechanism works through modulation of dopamine, it does not seem to carry an addiction potential to the same degree as amphetamines.

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Selegiline

selegiline adhd nootropicSelegiline (L-deprenyl) is a substituted phenethylamine drug commonly used to treat Parkinson’s disease and dementia. It has also seen some use as an alternative treatment for depression. There has not been a significant amount of research done on its efficacy in treating ADHD, but one study done on a small group of 28 children with ADHD studied the treatment effects of selegiline in comparison to methylphenidate. The children treated with selegiline displayed fewer symptoms of ADHD than those treated with methylphenidate while also displaying fewer side effects.[14] This research is preliminary, but it demonstrates the selegiline displays promise as an ADHD treatment.

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Supplements

These supplements are not strong enough to treat ADD/ADHD on their own, but they can potentiate and work synergistically with the nootropic drugs mentioned above.

Choline

acetylcholineCholine is an essential nutrient and precursor to acetylcholine that can be obtained in various ways in different foods. However, the easiest way to consume ideal amounts of choline is through a supplement. CDP-Choline and Alpha GPC are generally considered to be the two most effective sources of choline for nootropic use. Because racetam drugs and noopept work through modulation of acetylcholine, taking them alongside a choline source can make them more effective.

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L-Tyrosine

L-Tyrosine is an amino acid that acts as a precursor to the neurotransmitters noradrenaline and dopamine. One study found that supplementation of both Tyrosine and 5-HTP (a serotonin precursor) helped improve ADHD symptoms in 77% of the participants.[15] Taking these supplements can help improve attention deficits by increasing levels of neurotransmitters that play a significant role in attention. Tyrosine should be taken on an empty stomach to prevent it from competing for absorption with other amino acids found in food.

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Uridine

uridineUridine is a nucleotide base that has been found to improve memory, attentiveness, cognition, and learning.[16] The majority of uridine’s cognitive benefits appear to occur with its supplementation alongside other nootropics, such as racetams and noopept. It is considered a safe substance to combine with other nootropics and medications. Although uridine can be found naturally in liver, fish, and beer, it is most commonly supplemented through a uridine compound like uridine monophosphate or triacetyluridine.

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Conclusion

There are many nootropics, pharmaceuticals, and supplements that show significant promise for treating attention deficits. These substances are definitely worth looking into for those who are wary of amphetamines and the side effects and addictive potential they entail. In the end, the efficacy of each of these substances will vary between each individual and cautious experimentation will maximize the potential of finding an effective treatment regimen.

References   [ + ]

1. What is Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD, ADD)?
2. Methylphenidate
3. Gouliaev, A. H., & Senning, A. (1994). Piracetam and other structurally related nootropics. Brain Research Reviews, 19(2), 180–222.
4. Zavadenko, N. N., & Suvorinova, N. I. (2008). [Atomoxetine and piracetam in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children]. Zhurnal Nevrologii I Psikhiatrii Imeni S.S. Korsakova / Ministerstvo Zdravookhraneniia I Meditsinskoi Promyshlennosti Rossiiskoi Federatsii, Vserossiiskoe Obshchestvo Nevrologov [i] Vserossiiskoe Obshchestvo Psikhiatrov, 108(7), 43–47.
5. Baumgaertel, a. (1999). Alternative and controversial treatments for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 46(5), 977–992.
6. [The original novel nootropic and neuroprotective agent noopept].
7. Thome, J., & Reddy, D. P. (2009). The current status of research into Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Proceedings of the 2nd International Congress on ADHD: From Childhood to Adult Disease. Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders, 1(2), 165–74.
8. Piracetam and piracetam-like drugs: from basic science to novel clinical applications to CNS disorders.
9. Investigation into stereoselective pharmacological activity of phenotropil.
10. Pramiracetam effects on scopolamine-induced amnesia in healthy volunteers.
11. Memantine: a review of possible uses in child and adolescent psychiatry.
12. Efficacy and safety of modafinil film-coated tablets in children and adolescents with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: results of a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, flexible-dose study.
13. Examine.com Modafinil
14. Selegiline in the treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children: a double blind and randomized trial
15. Treatment of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder with monoamine amino acid precursors and organic cation transporter assay interpretation
16. Cognitex supplementation in elderly adults with memory complaints: an uncontrolled open label trial.