Photographic Memory Can Be Taught!

Gifted Children Monthly
By Dr. Miles R. Jones

photographic memory

Photographic memory, or hypermnesia , has occurred spontaneously in individuals throughout recorded history. The common ability shared by all such individuals is the association of abstract information (letters, numbers, words, ideas, etc.) with concrete sensory imagery.

Can photographic memory be taught? Actually, we all have photographic memory right now. That is, we have a near perfect memory for mental photographs, pictures, and images. It has been demonstrated repeatedly that a person under hypnosis can remember the smallest details, even though they were not consciously attended to in the first place. Everything we see, hear, or sense is recorded in our permanent memory. The tricky part is retrieving and recalling it; and the trickiest part of recall is remembering abstract information.

The use of visual and other sensory imagery is the foundation of all memory. We remember new information by associating it with information we already know and can recall. If that information is in the form of concrete imagery it is remembered almost automatically. For example, you can wander through a grocery store and with very little effort remember hundreds, if not thousands, of items that were in that store. However, your memory for a string of numbers would average about the length of a telephone number. The trained-memory practitioner, on the other hand, can memorize a string of numbers of practically any length, and is limited only by time and motivation.

Mnemonics Are the Key

The process of linking the abstract to the concrete is called visual imagery mediation, better known as mnemonics. A mnemonic is a picture that stands for an abstract. It is the most natural way of remembering large amounts of information. Mnemonics are used to teach us our most basic abstract analytical tools - the alphabet and numbers. A is for apple, B is for ball . . . one, two, buckle my shoe . . . three, four, shut the door, and so forth. Each abstract bit of information is associated and tied to a concrete picture. That concrete picture stimulates us to remember the abstract information.

Preschool and early learning programs for children are filled with concrete activities to learn by: movement to music, finger play, arts, crafts, pictures, and games. After those first abstract analytical tools are learned, however, the young student is generally expected to learn abstracts by studying abstracts. Imagery and other concrete sensory associations are seldom used.

The concepts and principles used to train one's memory are very simple. There are two fundamental ways to make a visual image that stands for an abstract. One way is to use something that logically reminds you of the sense of the abstract. The other way is to use something that reminds you of the sound (of the name) of the abstract. Both ways in principle must be picturable because the abstract is not.

It's illuminating to realize how commonly we do this anyway. The concept of justice, for example, is represented by the scales of justice weighing both sides of each case which reminds us of the concept of justice when we see that picture or object. Shell Oil Company uses a shell as its logo because it immediately reminds us of the name of the company.

A mnemonic, however, need only sound close enough to the name of the abstract to trigger the memory of it. For "hydraulics" one might use a picture of a fire hydrant; this incorporates both the sound of and the sense of hydraulics. Pictures alone are not always enough in dealing with the challenging problem of recall.

Ninety percent of all memory tasks consist of tying one bit of information to or with another bit of information (a fact and its referent). This could be a name and a face, an historical event and a date, a word and its meaning, etc. After forming pictures to represent these abstracts we must tie them together so they can be recalled.

Consider some examples of learning foreign language vocabulary. The Romanian word pamunt means "ground." It sounds somewhat like pavement and can be remembered easily by seeing pavement being laid into the ground, thus visually linking the two in an interactive way. This interaction, or causing the two pictures to do something to each other, is the key. Interaction of the two mnemonic pictures, one for the fact and one for its referent, will indelibly lock them in memory.

The Code Is in the Story

The following memory materials were designed to provide already prepared mnemonic imagery for students studying memory training. Memory for numbers, for example, is achieved by using a simple code-story that assigns all, or most, of the consonant sounds in the alphabet to the ten digits, 0-9. Once the learner knows this code-story it can be used to remember any series of numbers easily. The idea is simple. The code-story allows the learner to substitute sounds for numbers and spell out the names of picturable objects which are easily recalled, in place of a string of abstract numbers which is easily forgotten.

The code-story goes like this: a boy finds a microDoT (1) on his kNee (2). He runs to show his Ma (3) who is making Rye bread (4). The Law (5) arrives and arrests them for illegal possession of microdots and takes them before Judge SHoe who CHews tobacco (6) and sits on a KeG (7). He fines ma a FiVey (8) then invites her out to a PuB (9) named the overSeaZ (0) pub. The code correspondences are: 1 = D or T, 2 = N, 3 = M, 4 = R, 5 = L, 6 = J, SH, or CH, 7 = K or G, 8 = F or V, 9 = P or B, and 0 = S or Z.

You might want to test your memory by recalling the sequence of the story and the consonants in the key words. With a little practice the correspondences come very quickly. All the two digit numbers (10-99) are then easy to remember since the mnemonic pictures for them are provided as well. For example, 32 is pictured as a quarter MooN (since M = 3/N = 2), 55 is a LiLy (since L = 5), and 64 is CHaiR (since CH = 6/R = 4).

Using the code and the prepared imagery, students can take a series of numbers two digits at a time, encode them into images, and link them together by interactive imagery.

Mnemonic systems have been devised for just about any kind of memory task one might require: lists, speeches, vocabulary, names and faces, absentmindedness, and so on. The student motivated to make memory training a consistent practice will find himself or herself well on the way to developing a truly photographic memory.