How to Develop a Photographic Memory: The Ultimate Guide
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Learning how to develop a photographic memory would benefit absolutely anyone.
Imagine having the ability to recall an image of anything you’ve seen in the past. Think of how easy tests would have been. Honestly, it would basically be a superpower.
For some reason, I’m guessing you’re reading this article because you’re interested in developing this superpower?
While it is possible to develop a photographic memory, there is a lot of controversy surrounding the subject, so before we dive into it, I want to clarify a few things.
The Ultimate Guide to Developing a Photographic Memory
Before we dive into the photographic memory training and techniques, let’s touch on a few things…
What’s a Photographic Memory and Why is There Controversy?
The controversy surrounding photographic memory is largely due to an incorrect definition and concept of what it is.
The Dictionary (Oxford) Definition:
“The ability to remember information or visual images in great detail.”
The Hollywood/Junk Science Definition:
“The ability to blink and store an image of whatever you were looking at in your head (and keep it there forever).”
The controversy exists because of the Hollywood definition of the ability. While there are people who claim to be able to do this, all are thought to be fake as none of the claims have been validated.
So, if you’re looking to turn your memory into an effortless digital camera, I can’t help you. If you’re looking to learn the ability as outlined in the Oxford definition above, I got you. Keep reading.
What it’s Not: Eidetic Memory and Superior Autobiographical Memory
Controversy aside, there are a few conditions that are commonly confused with photographic memory. There is no way to develop either of the following; you have to be born with them.
This is a condition where people are able to visualize an image for a brief time after it’s been taken away.
It has been found in a very small number of young children, and in extremely rare cases, a few adults.
If you’re not born with an eidetic memory, you cannot develop it. If you’re curious if you do have this type of memory you can take a test here.
Superior Autobiographical Memory
Superior Autobiographical Memory is an extremely rare condition where people are able to remember almost every moment of their life.
A 60 Minutes reporter, Lesley Stahl, interviewed a 37 year old woman with the condition named Louise Owen.
In the interview, Stahl picked a random date from the past: April 21st, 1999. She then asked Owen if she could remember what she had done that day.
Her response was incredible. She was able to recall everything she had done that day, from the concert she attended to what she ate for dinner. What’s more incredible is that Owen was able to recall details from a day that was 19 years in the past!
Again, unless you’re born with a Superior Autobiographical Memory, you’ll never have it.
Of those who have the condition, many say that it’s a burden. Jill Price, the first person ever identified with the condition, said she, “feels haunted by the never-ending stream of memories.”
So even if you could develop it, you probably wouldn’t want it.
4 Techniques to Get a Photographic Memory
Alright, so we’ve established what a photographic memory is and what it isn’t. Let’s get to the practical stuff.
Below are four techniques to help you get a photographic memory. The first is by far my favorite. It’s so effective I still use it to recall information I committed to memory years back.
Technique 1: The Memory Palace (or Method of Loci)
The Memory Palace, also known as the Method of Loci, dates back to the Roman Empire.
Remember mnemonic devices like, “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally”? The memory palace is a mnemonic device on steroids. It is one of the most powerful memory tactics I know.
Before we jump in, a note on why it works so well. It’s so effective because it speaks our mind’s language. What’s our mind’s language?
Put simply, its language is images. Want proof? Imagine something like a grocery list. When you visualize your grocery list do you see the words avocado, carrots and steak or do you see images of avocados, carrots and steaks?
This technique works so well for two reasons:
First, it converts information into a series of images.
Second, it takes these images and links them to a physical location that you’re familiar with. These two combined make for one of the most powerful memory tools out there.
Last thing before we dive in, this technique will seem a little confusing until you read through all 5 steps. Here’s how to create your own memory palace:
Step #1: Choose a Palace
Pick your memory palace. This is any place that you can easily visualize. It could be your home, your school or place of work, or the route you take every morning to the coffee shop.
The key here is picking a place that you’re extremely familiar with. The more details you can visualize about the place, the better the memorization will be.
To start, I would recommend using your home as your memory palace. This is the place that most people can recall and visualize the most detail about.
Again, familiarity is key here. Other than your home you could use:
- Your old high school or college
- A friend’s house
- A route that you drive every day to work
- An old home
- A coffee shop or restaurant you often go to
- Your place of work
Step #2: Pick a Route
Once you have your palace, it’s time to choose your route.
Let’s use your home as an example. Your route could be that you walk through the front door, walk into the kitchen, then into the dining room, then down a flight of stairs into the living room, turn around and walk up the stairs to a bedroom.
The better you know this route, the better this technique will work. It is also extremely important to walk the same route every time.
Choose a starting point (I like to start with the front door) and an ending point for your mental walk through your memory palace.
Step #3: List Distinctive Details
As you’re probably seeing, details are integral to this technique working.
Close your eyes and mentally transport yourself to your memory palace. Visualize the starting point you defined above (let’s use the front door to keep things simple).
You can see your front door. Now visualize walking through the front door. Look slowly from the left to the right, what do you see?
In my own home, I see a grandfather clock, a table, a large mounted mirror, a large plant, and a small entry table
When you mentally walk through a room, analyze things methodically and consistently. It really helps to define procedures for your mental walk. For example, when you walk into a room, you always look from left to right.
Walk through every room of your palace. Analyze each room and take note of all the unique details you see.
The more details that you can visualize, the more items you’ll be able to memorize as we’ll see in the next step.
Step #4: Link
So you know your memory palace, you know your route and you know all the details you can see along your route.
Proud of you! Let’s make use of it!
Take each unique detail you’ve listed in your memory palace and link it to something that you want to memorize.
You can use this technique to memorize a ton of information, but let’s start with something simple like a grocery list.
Let’s say one of the items on your list is carrots. Make a link between carrots and the starting point of your memory palace, your front door.
The more ridiculous, exaggerated, unusual, crazy, nonsensical or strange you can make the link the better.
If you create a link that is boring, it’s wrong. Also, the more detail and information you can apply to the link the better. These two combined make the item much, much easier to remember.
Let’s use our carrot, front door link as an example. Mentally transport to your memory palace. As you walk up to the front door, you see a giant orange carrot, with green hair and long orange arms, opening the door.
That’s it. Try to tell me you’re not going to remember a giant carrot man opening a door.
The process for memorizing your entire grocery list is the same. Create some sort of link for each item on your list: bacon, onions, eggs, etc. Be sure to differentiate things. Right after the carrot man, you don’t want to have a giant bacon man walk out of the grandfather clock. Instead, have the hands of the clock be made of bacon.
Step #5: Go to Your Palace
Now that the list of items you want to memorize are linked, you need to visit your palace.
You see the giant carrot man opening the door, the bacon hands on the clock telling you the time. As you keep moving along your route, you will see more details and will be able to recall more information.
When you first start using this technique, you should walk through your palace a few times and recall each item to be sure everything is well linked and memorized.
Using the memory palace is a skill that you hone. The more you use and practice the skill the quicker and easier it will become. Don’t be discouraged if it takes a long time at first.
This technique really works; I have used it myself for years. As I said above, I can still recall information from memory palaces I created years back.
The only downside to the memory palace is that you need to go through your entire route, from start to finish, when recalling information. If the information you’re looking to recall is at the end of your route, you still need to go through the entire thing to remember it. You can sort of fast forward the walk through, but it still takes time.
The memory palace technique is great for remember things you want to know for a long time. For information that changes frequently, such as a market list, I prefer the next technique.
Technique 2: The Memory Peg
The memory peg is actually quite similar to the memory palace. The difference is that instead of linking information to items in a physical location, you use a list of numerical rhymes known as memory pegs.
A common starting list of these numerical rhymes memory pegs is:
1 = gun
2 = zoo
3 = tree
4 = door
5 = hive
6 = bricks
8 = plate
9 = wine
10 = hen
The technique works by combining the above number rhymes with something that you want to remember. Let’s use a grocery list as our example again.
You could create the following links:
Carrot: Picture a gun shooting carrot bullets.
Onions: Imagine all the animals at war with each other using onion grenades as their weapon.
Bacon: Imagine a tree full of bacon fruits.
Eggs: Picture a door made completely of eggs.
As you can see, this technique is similar to the memory palace in that you link something you want to remember to a visual image. The difference is that you use a list of images that you’ve memorized to link the information.
This is both a drawback of the technique and one of its greatest advantages.
You initially have to memorize the list but you can also create an infinite number of pegs to help you remember things. For example this site lists 1,000 pegs.
I strongly prefer this technique for things I want to remember over a short period of time. It is much easier to reuse a list of memory pegs than it is links in your memory palace.
Technique 3: The Military Method
If you’re really interested in learning this skill, I assume you’ve done some research and have come across multiple articles that explain the military method.
This is the only technique I know that claims to give you the “Hollywood” definition of a photographic memory.
The technique involves a dark room, a light, and a sheet of paper you want to memorize. You essentially flip the light on and off while looking at the sheet of paper.
The idea is that when the lights go out, you’ll have an imprint of the sheet of paper in your mind. You do this for 15 minutes each day for about month.
I decided not to add a full explanation of this technique as I was unable to conclusively determine that it works. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try the technique.
Technique 4: Improve Your Overall Memory
Just as our bodies need food to function properly, our memory needs the following four to operate well.
Giving your memory what it needs will greatly improve its effectiveness and will make learning techniques 1-3 exponentially easier.
If you want a better memory, work the following four tips into your everyday life.
Tip #1: Sleep
More than anything else you can do to improve your memory, getting the right amount of sleep will have the largest impact.
Sleep gives our brain the chance to reboot and process the information we take in during the day. While we sleep, our brain sorts through the memories we have, storing those that are significant and discarding those that aren’t. This process is known as memory consolidation.
The take-away point here? Always get the right amount of sleep. When you don’t, you brain won’t be able to store memories and information effectively.
Tip #2: Meditation
Almost any strategy claiming to teach a person how to develop a photographic memory incorporates some form of meditation.
Meditation is an exercise that slows down your mind’s processing. When you meditate you’re essentially training your mind.
This training will give you more control of your mind and your thoughts.
Setting up a meditation routine will pay long-term dividends in general, but will also greatly improve your memory.
Tip #3: Diet
A combination of proper diet and the right vitamins and herbs, can very positively impact your memory.
In the same vein as getting enough sleep, our brain operates best when given the right amount of what it needs. Making sure to maintain a balanced diet will positively affect overall physical function, memory included.
When you choose your memory enhancing vitamins and herbs, be sure to choose those that are backed by clinical proof.
Be cautious of supplements that seem unnatural or too good to be true. Do your research and be sure you’re taking something that has been proven to be effective.
WebMD has a great article that lists vitamins and herbs that are good for memory that you can read here.
Tip #4: Exercise
Along with diet and sleep, exercise is another aspect of healthy living that hugely impacts memory.
When you exercise you increase your rate of circulation. More circulation means more oxygen is going to your brain. Studies show that students who ran after studying better retained the information they studied versus those that didn’t.
If you don’t like running, but you love lifting, you’re in luck. Both aerobic exercises, such as running, and lifting have been shown to improve memory.
If you needed another reason to get shredded, just think about improving your memory.
I want to emphasize that practice is key here.
It took me months before I was effectively able to use techniques #1 and #2. I encourage you to try technique #3 (and I want to hear if it works) and technique #4 is a matter of making life changes.
The good things in life take work and improving your memory is no exception.
Victor Hugo wisely said, “Intelligence is the wife, imagination is the mistress, memory is the servant.”
With this guide, and some hard work, your memory can be something that you control. Use these four techniques to learn how to develop a photographic memory and become the superman of memory.
Photo Credit: David Bliwas via Flickr