This Is What It’s Like Living With A Photographic Memory

image - Flickr / James Blann
image – Flickr / James Blann

Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What is it like to have a photographic (eidetic) memory? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.


I have a semi-photographic memory in that I can remember the content of most anything I’ve read and sometimes visually remember where the information is on the page or how far into the book/article it is.  I don’t generally remember the names of the author or possibly the article/book but can usually find it with the specific information I do remember.  I have almost no autobiographical/experiential memory ability and that usually feels like an unfair price to pay :-)

What is it like?  It’s complicated.

There are certainly positive ramifications:

  • In college; I’ve never had to study as long as I took notes during lectures and I didn’t have to buy textbooks unless they were going to be used for independent reading and/or were interesting enough for me to want to buy them. I usually get 100% or thereabout on any test and if I miss any questions its usually because I missed a class or got lazy and didn’t take notes one day. I don’t experience any test anxiety because I know I will get an A. I can answer most people’s questions with some degree of certainty and back up my response with a reference to the research or source of my answer. I can write research papers more quickly than most people because I have the info in my head and know which references I need to collect in order to cite/back up my ideas. Professors tend to enjoy me as a student because I am knowledgeable about the topics and can participate in well-informed and interesting conversations about their work/research. I easily generate original ideas for projects and papers because I can remember and connect information from different fields and studies related to the topic.
  • In regular life; I don’t get lost (photographic navigational memory). I can provide accurate information to friends and family about topics ranging from legal problems, medical problems, psychological problems, investments, business, parenting, nutrition, politics, fashion, etiquette, art, crafts, and anything else I’ve been interested enough to research (I research for fun and relaxation). I know how to fix things. I’m useful to have around and this helps me socially. I can generally come up with a relevant and amusing quote or anecdote from history or current events to amuse people with, I rock at karaoke, and no one can beat me at word games (except my brother whose strategy skills blow me out of the water during scrabble).

It’s not all good though, on a personal and emotional level its quite costly.

  • In college: I feel guilty about getting As on tests I didn’t study for when really hard workers struggle to pass. I feel guilty about ruining the curve in classes that have one (and sometimes negotiate with the teacher to be removed from the curve equation, even if it might lower my scores). I hate working in groups because I end up doing more work when I have to not only carry more of the burden but also figure out how to make sure everyone looks like they’ve done an equal amount of work on the project. I hate working in groups because it takes me more time to complete projects when I generally have to spend a fair amount of time providing my group-mates with the information I have that they don’t. I am popular as a group member (particularly with average and below average peers) because working with me pretty much guarantees an A on the project– this is a disadvantage to me because I’d rather work alone but am afraid of hurting others’ feelings if I refuse to work with them.  I am unpopular as a group member with better students (usually those who actually work hard to earn their grades) because I choose unconventional projects and make them very anxious with my disorganization and procrastination.I have TERRIBLE study skills because I’ve never had to develop them and I fear it will one day bite me in the ass. I am a crazy perfectionist because I know what I am capable of and will punish myself severely for failing to get an A on a test or project. I find it hard to make friends because many people dislike me since I have an “unfair” advantage and don’t have to work to get the grades they struggle to approach. I find it hard to make friends because many people who like me in spite of my “unfair” advantage find it difficult to relate to me on a personal level and seem to feel like I have super-powers or am otherwise alien. I find it hard to make friends because I don’t fit in with most other people and they find it hard to comprehend that I research for fun and would rather spend a Friday night intensely discussing potential solutions to unsolvable problems than going out to drink and socialize with random people.Some professors dislike me because I ask questions that they don’t have the answers to or related to research on the topic that they haven’t yet read. Some professors dislike me because they feel like I am “too big for my britches,” and I often feel guilty for asking questions during class (so many questions) that are related to the topic but beyond the scope of what is being presented and often beyond the ability of others to understand when they haven’t accumulated as much information as I have about the subject.
  • At work:  I get bored easily because I have an insatiable drive for new information and most jobs are repetitive. I piss off my managers because they often feel like I’m making them “look dumb” and I don’t know how to keep my mouth shut if I have pertinent information. I piss off my managers because my coworkers often come to me for information and assistance instead of them. I have trouble working in groups because I usually have too much more information and I can easily dominate the discussion or make people feel like I’m being pushy. I have trouble working with other people because I often have more knowledge about any given topic we’re working on and its not actually a good thing to “always be right” about things because you can’t not remember what you remember.  I have trouble making friends at work because many peers find me odd, difficult to understand, and/or feel like I threaten their chances of advancing as much as they’d like.I have a lot of trouble even deciding on a career path because I am “really good at” (and really educated about) too many subjects and in order to choose one path I would have to give up my dreams and passion for the other paths I’m not taking. At 38 I haven’t yet been able to establish a track record or formal evidence of expertise in any particular field because my memory (and number of topics I’m passionate about) makes me have high aptitude for too many things and prevents me from being able to focus on one thing long enough to make tangible progress.  Worst of all, I have difficulty following through on projects because my memory is such that thinking through the problem (and figuring it out) seems like having done it completely and I then find it hard to muster motivation to take the time to finish it in real life.
  • The personal costs are what I hate the most: I have trouble in relationships because I’m “always right” when it comes to facts & information that I’ve accumulated knowledge about (non experiential) and have not yet figured out how to let other people “be right” without compromising my intellectual principles and/or unfairly hoarding information I could have shared. I have trouble finding people who connect with me intellectually because while many people are as or more informed than me in their particular domain of interest it seems impossible to find others who are equally informed in a wide range of domains of knowledge. I have trouble connecting with others because I often end up feeling guilty or becoming aware of the frightening potential of manipulating or unduly influencing others when they unquestioningly accept my input as fact due to my wealth of information about everything that I am compelled to learn about– It’s frightening to feel responsible for being infallible when you know you actually are not.I am disorganized because everything I experience internally or externally triggers a memory and demands that I contemplate the connection /relationship and I am rendered effectively incapable of reliably noticing the organization/cleanliness of my home or office. I lose track of time and days because I am distracted by associative memories triggered by anything; I forget to pay my bills & cannot properly manage money because I am usually stuck in my head and lose track of time or lose the bills in the clutter I’m failing to notice. Other problems associated with being constantly reminded of something that is potentially related to whatever: I can’t keep a schedule, I forget to eat, I forget to shower (or that I forgot to eat or shower), I forget important dates like birthdays and anniversaries,  I often have insomnia, I lose everything (If I were a man I’d be very grateful not to have a detachable penis), and I am always anxious that I’ve forgotten some important deadline or other task I usually forget.I can’t remember experiences like my 21st birthday, special times with my daughter (I think its a trade off for my other kind of memory ability), my first kiss or the first time I had sex, friends and lovers I have fallen out of contact with (I somehow completely forget many people which makes me sad), or most any personal accomplishment that would probably look really good on my resume.I feel really guilty about not being grateful for my “gifts.”  I feel really guilty for not using my ability as much as I could or should have.  From childhood, people have told me that I am responsible for using my gifts to improve the world, I don’t feel I have honored that responsibility and so feel guilty for letting “the world” down (irrational, I know).  I fear I am arrogant; I fear that others think I’m arrogant.  I struggle to achieve greater humility but have little success on that count.  I sometimes worry that I’m a “bad person” because I have failed to use my abilities or live up to the potential this memory gives me.

    The single worst thing for me, though, is that I feel like I’m not quite human.  I don’t have many experiences others have, have not developed skills that others have developed because they require repetition or other tools to remember information, and I have many experiences that others do not have due to the differences in how my brain works. If I could feel like I “belong” somewhere or that I am really “connected” to another human being then I might feel like all the other negatives are worth it for the benefits I experience.

I don’t know if this actually answers “what it is like” to have this type of memory because it seems more like I’m simply listing the effects it has on my life.  However, I don’t know what its like to NOT have this memory of mine and since this type of question requires a comparison between the two experiences… I think the question could only REALLY be answered by someone who has both had and not had this type of memory ability. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

This post originally appeared at Quora: The best answer to any question. Ask a question, get a great answer. Learn from experts and get insider knowledge.

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