Photographic memory is the ability to recall a past scene in detail with great accuracy – just like a photo. Although many people claim they have it, we still don’t have proof that photographic memory actually exists. However, there is a condition called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) that allows people to recall past events in detail, along with the exact dates when they occurred. For example, they may be able to tell you what they ate for lunch on 1 May 1999 and what day of the week it was (Saturday). But HSAM has been identified in fewer than 100 people worldwide, and while their memories are exceptional, they still aren’t as reliable as photographs.
Memory is more like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle than a photograph. To recollect a past event, we piece together various remembered elements and typically forget parts of what happened (the color of the wall, the picture in the background, the exact words that were said). Passing over details helps us to form general concepts. We are good at remembering the gist of what happened and less good at remembering (photographically) all the elements of a past scene. This is advantageous because what is important for memory is the meaning of what was presented, not the exact details present at any given time.
Of course, people vary in their ability to remember the past. How well we remember things depends largely on how well we pay attention when material is presented. Additionally, the extent to which we replay the material in our minds and relate it to what we already know affects our ability to remember.
Some people with excellent memory use elaborate techniques to help them remember. Others are able to effortlessly recall vast amounts of autobiographical information spanning most of the lifetime. Scientists are learning more about memory by studying these people, as well as people who have very poor memory as the result of neurological injury or disease.