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The Disadvantages of Having a Photographic Memory

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Whenever you have to study for a test, you may wish you had a photographic or eidetic memory. After all, what could be better than looking through a text once and easily memorizing all the material. And what about all of those times you've mislaid your car keys. You wouldn't have that worry anymore. Right?

There's a series of children's books called Cam Jansen by David Adler. The series is about a 5th grade detective named Jennifer Jansen. She is nicknamed Cam, short for Camera, because of her photographic memory. She closes her eyes and says "click" while memorizing a scene in front of her. She can then recall these events to solve a mystery. While Cam Jansen makes for great stories, would her brain in reality be so overloaded with unnecessary facts that she would struggle to separate what matters from what doesn't when she tries to solve a mystery?

Problems With Photographic Memories

In the Slate article What Is It Like To Have a Photographic Memory?, college student Allan Nielsen explained that there are both upsides and downsides to having a photographic memory. Here are examples of what he can remember:

"I can vividly recall sight and sounds, into the tiniest detail. Without even concentrating, I can visualize people I have seen for even just 5 minutes. I can even recall such small details as jewelry, hairstyle, make-up, etc."

Then he gives an example of problems that can be caused by having an excellent memory:

"Sometimes, I can't control when I visualize memories...I sometimes tend to visualize the equations and formulas my math teacher present in class, in real time. That can easily make me want to visualize the equations with various different combinations, and therefore render me much less active in lessons."

A photographic memory could cause the brain to become overloaded with facts

A photographic memory could cause the brain to become overloaded with facts

Finally, he explains why he's not a straight A student:

"The simple answer is that the "photographs" in my memory are so fragmented and so cluttered that it consumes a whole lot of my energy just to visualize one chosen memory."

Remembering lots of stuff doesn't necessarily make you smarter. In fact, the brain can become overloaded with lots of unneeded information. Forgetting makes our brains more efficient. Memory involves selecting bits of information we need while ignoring what's unnecessary. Remembering what someone looks like is beneficial. Remembering exactly what they were wearing each and every time we met them isn't.

Intelligence involves more than remembering lots of stuff. It also involves the ability to apply knowledge and skills. An overloaded brain may not be able to do that effectively.

Pruning is an important part of brain development

Pruning is an important part of brain development


Pruning is a process the brains of children undergo to become more efficient. Experiences during infancy and childhood impact the development of the brain. Pruning weeds out unnecessary connections and strengthens necessary connections. Eliminating connections that aren't used very often allows important connections to grow and expand, making the brain more efficient. This is one reason why early learning is so important.

An infant's brain has connections that allow them to hear sounds from all languages. During early childhood, the brain strengthens connections for sounds in the languages the child is being exposed to. Connections for sounds that aren't heard are eliminated over time. Adults often have trouble "hearing" sounds that are not in our native languages. Young children can hear and distinguish these sounds. That's why young children can learn multiple foreign languages more easily than adults can. It's also why the ages of 4 to 6 are so crucial for ear training in music.

TED Talk on Memory Training

Do Photographic Memories Exist?

Sticking with Slate, Joshua Foer tells us:

"Lots of people claim to have a photographic memory, but nobody actually does. Nobody."

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There are people with excellent memories, but:

"They just can't take mental snapshots and recall them with perfect fidelity."

According to scientific studies, photographic memories don't actually exist. People with excellent memories don't recall with 100% accuracy. An excellent memory is often limited to specific tasks. Someone who is great at remembering faces may not be good at memorizing cards or numbers. Someone who can remember an article word-for-word may have trouble remembering where they left their keys.

There are methods we can do to improve our memories. And using these methods, we can control what we want to remember. Having a photographic memory seems great in theory. However, a brain overloaded with unnecessary information could make day-to-day life very difficult.

Some people can accurately remember sequences of playing cards

Some people can accurately remember sequences of playing cards

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2013 JoanCA


JoanCA (author) on July 15, 2015:


That's a great point. Remembering everything would mean holding onto a lot of bad as well as good memories, which could have many negative consequences.

Audrey Selig from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma on July 12, 2015:

Hi I usually have a very good memory which sometimes works to my disadvantage. It allows a person to remember the good and the bad and sometimes causes overload. I agree with the points in your hub, and have a relative with a super memory. However, he only remembers the things he can control and does not disrupt his memory with unnecessary information.That is great if you can do that. I love to study the brain, so thanks for sharing your thoughts. Sharing, Blessings, Audrey

Kim on May 13, 2015:

I also have an excellent memory. One problem that happens now and then, is when I remember things other people can't, and they say it never happened because they just don't remember. They seem to get pretty upset sometimes, like they think I'm just making it up. Usually I'm just left saying, "oh, okay" and left frustrated.

poetryman6969 on January 05, 2014:

A better memory would still be a good thing!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 06, 2013:

The Disadvantages of Having a Photographic Memory informative, useful, and most interesting hub. I am now more aware of the disadvantages of Photographic Memory, very much indeed.

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