The Brain

How Authentic Are Photographic Memories?

The Conversation

Since the invention of photography itself, people have used photograph-themed metaphors when thinking and talking about memories and remembering. When we want to retain memories of everyday events for example, we take “mental snapshots”, and when we think back to momentous events, we regard them as “flashbulb moments”. But are memories ever truly like photographs?

A large number of people certainly believe so. In fact, in one recent survey of the general public from the US and UK, 87% agreed —- at least to some degree —- that “some people have ‘true’ photographic memories”. Yet, when the same statement was put to members of an esteemed scientific society for memory research, only a third of the participants agreed.

The many scientists who are sceptical about the existence of photographic memories know, of course, that plenty of memories do seem highly photographic to people. However, for these sceptics, none of the available evidence so far is enough to fully convince them.

Momentous events

Many of us have experienced momentous personal or world events for which even years later, our memories seem just as vivid and detailed as a photograph taken on the day. Yet studies show that these so-called “flashbulb memories” are far from photographic.

In one study, American students were surveyed the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York in 2001 and asked to document the circumstances in which they first heard the news of these attacks, plus details of an everyday event they had recently experienced. Then either one, six, or 32 weeks later, the students were surveyed about the same two events again.

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