Eidetic memory, also known as photographic memory, is the ability to recall with vivid accuracy things that have been heard, seen or read. This appears more frequently in children than in adults, and usually involves visual images such as artistic illustrations. Other people have exhibited eidetic memory for music, and are able to play a piece, sometimes even a long composition, after hearing it for a brief time.
Perhaps the most compelling modern example of this condition is Kim Peek, the man upon which the movie Rain Man was based. Peek was born with FG syndrome, characterized by physical abnormalities and developmental delays, and other brain malformations. Even though his IQ test scores are fairly low, he reads books in less than an hour, and can recite them with almost complete accuracy, even years later. His mental library contains over twelve thousand books on a wide range of topics. Unlike most people, whose memory becomes less precise over time, Peek’s memory and social skills seem to have become more developed with age.
There are rare cases of other adults who exhibit the ability to recall, with incredible detail, visual scenes, numbers, and written texts. Sometimes these events, such as memorizing the order of a deck of cards, are short-lived but appear to be photographic in nature. Many psychologists attribute the ability of others to remember extensive amounts of material over long periods of time not to photographic abilities, but to highly developed memory skills.
There is a great deal of controversy regarding whether eidetic memory actually exists, or if some people simply have the ability to organize data quickly, or have developed techniques which assist in mental recall. Testing indicates that true photographic memory appears more often in children than adults, and is short-lived. Many eidetekes, or people with eidetic memory, exhibit this in one particular area, such as art, music, numbers, words or settings, and not across the entire spectrum of visual or auditory perception
Mozart is thought by some to have possessed eidetic memory for music. Born into a musical family, he began to compose short, beautiful pieces on his own by the age of five. At six, he had already mastered the keyboard and began to perform publicly. He soon became a violin virtuoso, and by age nine began composing symphonies. Though there is no doubt that he possessed an incredible memory for music, some psychiatrists attribute his early start not to total recall, but to training and the musical environment in which he was raised.
Tests for eidetic memory in children involve decomposing an illustration into two sets of apparently meaningless dots, which, when superimposed, create a picture. Children are shown the sets separately for a few seconds and then asked to describe what they have seen. A small percentage of children visually merge the dots into the proper picture, and describe it in great detail as if they are looking at it. The memory, however, generally fades in a few minutes.
While most people do not possess the enviable gift of total recall, a number of games and techniques have been created to help develop visual memory. Many of these involve computer games. In some, random dots appear upon lines and the player attempts to memorize them, while other games utilize three dimensional images. Other memory enhancement tools use mnemonic devices, or verbal formulas and rhymes to improve recall.