Photographic Memory pre Photography
May 20, 2007 7:22 AM   Subscribe

What term was used to describe a person with a photographic memory prior photography?

Surely before the use of cameras and photography there were people who were able to remember faces, text and scenes with amazingly detailed accuracy. So what was this skill/talent called? Was there a term or did people simply say, "boy that person can sure remember faces, text and scene with amazingly detailed accuracy."
posted by brookeb to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"Perfect memory" would suffice.
posted by knapah at 7:24 AM on May 20, 2007

posted by jessamyn at 7:27 AM on May 20, 2007

Eidetic memory I think.
posted by thelongcon at 7:27 AM on May 20, 2007

"Eidetic" memory, perhaps.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 7:27 AM on May 20, 2007

"Eidetic" was not used prior to photography — the earliest use of the word in English (at least, according to the OED) was 1924, in an article by G.W. Allport in the British Journal of Psychology.

The phrase "eidetic memory" or "eidetic imagery" was coined by the German psychologist E. R. Jaensch in his work Ueber den Aufbau der Wahrnehmungswelt und ihre Struktur im Jugendalter, which was published in 1923. So photography definitely precedes "eidetic".
posted by Aloysius Bear at 7:36 AM on May 20, 2007

I was wrong the first time but after further searching it seems the skill was called the "method of loci".
posted by thelongcon at 7:47 AM on May 20, 2007

Actually I think they may be right.


"To understand the meaning of the term "eidetic", one must refer to etymology and its historical origins. Among the Greek philosophers of Antiquity, "Eidos" referred to an essence and existence, a suprasensible reality. In modern language, this term also means the word "form". Its other root is "idein", which means "to see". The combination of these two terms thus leads to the meaning of the expression "eidetic" – "to see a form or an essence".

Now, what is the eidetic image? The eidetic image refers to the experience of having inner mental images. It is a process of impressions of experiences throughout development. The eidetic image is presented in consciousness as a shape of an animated, clear and specific image that emerges when remembering what was experienced. It is a sort of inner film comprised of images, sensorial and emotional reactions, and meaning. We create images from all of our senses. As such, the image experience is not limited to its visuality, as it is auditory, kinesthetic, tactile or olfactory at the same time. The eidetic image occupies a space between perception and memory. It possesses a dynamic function of liaison and staging of the elements that constitute the experience."
posted by dnthomps at 7:50 AM on May 20, 2007

But isn't that a trained skill, thelongcon, and so not the same as a photographic memory?
I was trying to recall if a contemporary term for a perfect memory was used in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, where I first learned of that technique, but can't seem to locate my copy :D.
posted by Abiezer at 8:07 AM on May 20, 2007

dnthomps, "eidetic" being formed from Greek roots doesn't mean it was coined by the Greeks. Similarly, "television" comes from Greek and Latin roots, but was obviously not in use by the Greeks or Romans (it was first used in about 1907).

The OED specifically says that "eidetic" comes from the German eidetisch (which was based on eidos etc), which it notes was coined by E. R. Jaensch. Another source here says that Jaensch's work was published in 1923.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 8:20 AM on May 20, 2007

Do we know of any historically eidetic figures?
posted by DenOfSizer at 8:31 AM on May 20, 2007


OK, more seriously, does anyone know how if the term "total recall" predates photographic/eidetic memory?
posted by teg at 8:56 AM on May 20, 2007

Response by poster: Perhaps there was no term. It simply seems like total recall is a remarkable enough quality to warrant some kind of label.
posted by brookeb at 8:59 AM on May 20, 2007

I think historically we can look back to Plato.

Even if he did not have an exact term for it, he discusses "the idea that memory might be analogous to a wax tablet into which our perceptions and thoughts stamp images of themselves, as a signet ring stamps impressions in wax."

And he goes even further with ideas of "an inner artist painting pictures (of what we think we see) in the soul."

Check out this supplement and tell me what you guys think. The supplement comes from this article on mental imagery. Very interesting read.
posted by dnthomps at 9:06 AM on May 20, 2007

Well, would there have been a term at all? Without being able to take accurate visual records (photographs), how could we tell if someone really remembered things visually? A description of a scene could be photographic memory, or it could be someone that memorized the three pots, two flowers, and three girls at the scene.

Take three people who walk through town. One may have a map layout in her head that she uses to navigate. Another might have landmarks she uses- turn left at the blue building. The third might have directions memorized- right, left, right, right. Three different ways, but they all get through town.

And Eidetic seems to encompass all the senses, not just visual like the OP asked.
posted by Monday at 9:06 AM on May 20, 2007

Was there a term or did people simply say, "boy that person can sure remember faces, text and scene with amazingly detailed accuracy."

You might want to read Yates classic The Art of Memory. As others have hinted, memorization has long been regarded as a talent not a skill. And so someone with great memory might have been complimented as "boy that person sure is adept at the art of memory." I suspect it is sometime in the modern age that photographic records arose as a natural analogy.
posted by vacapinta at 9:22 AM on May 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

posted by Astro Zombie at 9:41 AM on May 20, 2007

Francis Crawford of Lymond.
posted by othersomethings at 10:32 AM on May 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

it seems the skill was called the "method of loci"

The method of loci isn't a skill, or an ability. It's a method (ironic, that) or tool to aid memorization and learning, just like any other form of mnemonics.
posted by CKmtl at 11:08 AM on May 20, 2007

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