You know you’ve been in that situation before- scratching your head, wondering where you’ve put your car keys. Or clicking on folder after folder on your computer, knowing that you just left that document in an “easy-to-find” directory. Such memory lapses are something that everyone has experienced, and would not come as a surprise to many. But for some, memory lapses are rare events, if not completely foreign to them.
Eidetic, or photographic, memory describes a type of recall where an individual is able to describe with almost superhuman precision, extremely accurate details concerning events, people, places, or things that he or she has witnessed in their lifetime. This capacity to summon memories with computer-like precision has been suggested to be a direct consequence of re-wiring of the brain in individuals with autism, or as a compensatory response in individuals with savantism. In fact, in a subset of the latter, termed prodigious savants, eidetic memory seems to occur rather frequently.
While many reports of individuals possessing photographic memory has surfaced, the majority of these superior memory claims have ultimately been revealed as examples of highly skilled mnemonists rather than bona fide individuals with eidetic memory capabilities. However, the degree to which some people have trained their ability to memorize patterns or sequences is no less amazing, and organized competitions in which trained mnemonists memorize ad hoc information have demonstrated the extent to which human recall can be honed. In the World Memory Championships, for example, a series of ten different memory challenges are presented to assess different aspects of information gathering, retention, and recall.
A recently published neuroscience article describes a form of hyperthymesia, called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) identified in under a dozen individuals that refers to the rare human ability to accurately recall personal events throughout the majority of, if not their entire life. An important finding from this study was that upon structural magnetic resonance imaging of the brains of these gifted individuals, researchers were able to consistently identify nine neuroanatomical structures significantly different from the brains of participants with normal memory abilities. Though it was noted that many of the regions identified in this study were implicated in other neuroscientific examinations of autobiographical memory, whether or not these differences in brain structure were the cause or the effect of HSAM could not be concluded. However, it was suggested that perhaps these “different” regions were being used more efficiently in individuals with HSAM.
The scope of what the human brain is capable of remains astounding, and what we consider superhuman or paranormal abilities may simply be tantalizing hints of our full potential as a species. Continued and subsequent scientific research into these phenomena will uncover these mysteries, as it is not a question of “if”, but “when”. Perhaps, as individuals learn to recognize extraordinary talents in themselves and/or others, they will be key in helping to unravel the intriguing and ongoing mysteries of our perceived human limitations.