Can you really have a photographic memory?

Our memories form an integral part of our identities, and we rely on them to be veridical. But how much detail about an event can the brain reasonably store and later retrieve? And does a photographic memory really exist?

In this brief BBC Reel clip, Dr Maria Wimber, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and Memory at the INP, talks about how memories are initially formed and later recalled in the brain, about the reconstructive nature of our memories, and about conditions associated with superior memory.

Maria’s research group uses behavioural methods and advanced brain imaging techniques to isolate and track memories in complex patterns of brain activity. She is particularly interested in how the process of remembering unfolds, step by step, in the human brain. What aspects of a past event do we reactivate most rapidly, and with the highest confidence? And do our memories systematically change over time?

The lab’s recent research, funded by an ERC Starting Grant, suggests that remembering is a hierarchical process that starts with the reactivation of gist-like, semantic information about an event, and then progresses to reconstructing more detailed sensory features. Over time and in particular when we repeatedly remember an event, memories tend to become “semanticized” and lose sensory detail.

First published: 3 March 2021