Amazing Feats of Memory

From time to time we hear about people with “photographic” memories who supposedly can remember every detail of something they experienced.  When you look into what’s really going on though, it becomes clear that this is not really the case, and their capabilities are actually limited to certain segments of their experience.

Jill Price is touted as the “woman who can’t forget,” but if you read the whole article you note that this is far from the truth.  In reality she can only remember things well that are relevant to her personal life history.  Stephen Wiltshire is even more impressive, able to recreate entire city-scapes from just one viewing.

The reality is that we humans are limited by the size of our brains as to how much total information we can store.  And if we were to store every piece of sensory information that came our way every second of the day, we’d fill up pretty quickly.  Thus, we are forced to heavily compress (i.e. encode) the raw information into chunks which can later be decoded when we are asked to recall.  Fortunately, the world is very structured and it actually helps us immensely in this encoding/decoding process.  We are all virtuosos at this process, but it’s so unconscious and natural that we don’t recognize the incredible feat that our brains are accomplishing all the time.

What goes on in these savant cases is that their brains have developed with a preternatural fixation and skill in either a particular domain (such as architecture), or in a general encoding/decoding scheme which allows for superior memory across a wide — but not unlimited — range of domains, usually based on the visual system.

In the case of Stephen Wiltshire it appears to be the domain-specific type.  If you browse his art gallery and history, almost all of his feats of memory are specifically of architectural forms.  Not surprisingly, architecture has quite a bit of regularity to it which helps the encoding/decoding process.  For instance, if you see one column in detail and know how many columns there are on the building, you can recreate all of them in detail.  One would expect Wiltshire to perform less eidetically on landscapes and nature, and perhaps no better than average on abstract visual scenes.

I had something more to say on this topic, but now I forget….

hat tip: Mom

  • Rafe, I’ve been following Stephen Wiltshire for years. What an amazing gift. I had to look up the word “eidetically” and agree that Stephen is an amazing example of both the ability to remember AND the ability to artistically recreate.

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  • danielhorowitz

    I just caught a Nat Geo special on Susan Polgar, the first female chess grandmaster. At the end of the show they do an fMRI on her and they can’t tell a difference between when she is looking at human faces, and when she is seeing chess games she played 30 years ago. The idea is that the tens of thousands of hours of chess learning has partially hijacked and expanded the awesome pattern recognition capabilities of the Fusiform gyrus. The implication is that any specialized learning creates better pattern recognition which may manifest itself as “intuition.” (Facial recognition is done in approximately 1/10th of a second.)

    Separately, I believe that most people with 99th percentile memories are using visual chunking. After all, a picture’s worth a thousand words…

  • danielhorowitz