How Good is Your Visual Memory?

I recently read The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks and I can’t stop thinking about it.  Sacks is professor of neurology and psychiatry that writes about medical oddities relating to cognition.  The Mind’s Eye is about all aspects of vision and how it impacts the brain, our behavior and our perception of reality.

I’ve always assumed I was an average person, with average abilities, so that I was smarter than some, but dumber than others.  That I was stronger than some, and weaker than others.  I’ve always assumed I fit comfortably in the middle of the bell curve of what it means to be human, and thus assumed what I see and feel is pretty much what other people see and feel.  Reading Oliver Sacks proves that assumption completely wrong.


We all see the world drastically different, both at a physical level and at a conceptual level.  People aren’t a homogenous species.  If you’ve watched the recent Olympics you know what physical extremes exists.  Reading Oliver Sacks will illustrate the cognitive extremes.

Even in the snug middle of the bell curve, we’re all very different.  In the last chapter of The Mind’s Eye, Sacks writes about blindness and talked about his essay on John Hull, author of Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness.  Hull wrote about losing his sight, and slowly forgetting all visual memories until years later he reached what he called “deep blindness.”   Hull blew my mind, when he wrote that he felt deep blindness was a richer state of mind. 

In his essay on Hull, Sacks seem to imply this was how blindness worked in general.  Later he was surprised by all the letters he got from blind people explaining how their blindness had not worked that way.  He soon learned there was an array of human responses to going blind.

From this Sacks wrote about visual memory.  Sacks himself discovered he himself had poor visual memory when he took a lizard skeleton to his mother and she visually memorized it by turning it 360 degrees, stopping each 30 degrees to memorize that view.  She was a surgeon and had expected her son to be a surgeon too, but when she realized he didn’t have her visual memory, she told Sacks he shouldn’t go into surgery.  I suggest you find a copy of The Mind’s Eye and read the whole chapter rather than me paraphrasing it all, because it has an astounding amount of information about visual memory to contemplate.  Especially the stories about blind people who still feel they live in a visual world – an artificial reality inside their heads.

Like Sacks I have poor visual memory. Sometimes when I listen to music with my eyes closed, I’ll have flashes of visual scenes, but I have no control over them, and they last so little time I can’t study their details.  People with great visual memory can study their mind’s image and draw them.  A stunning example is Stephen Wiltshire, who draws Rome from one helicopter ride.  (See other videos here.)

If I was to go blind, I assume my experience would be pretty much like John Hull, and I’d eventually forget my visual memories and end up in deep blindness.  But thinking about this, I wondered if I couldn’t exercise my visual memory, like doing push-ups to make my arms stronger, and develop my visual memory.  After I read the last chapter in The Mind’s Eye I started paying more attention to visual details and became fixated on a church steeple I see on my drive to work, atop Audubon Baptist Church.  I drive by a 8:25 in the morning when the sun is behind me and there is no shadows, and again at 1:55 when I’m returning from lunch, and it does have shadows.

The first time I noticed this steeple after reading the book, I tried to memorize as much as I could when I was at the light near the church.  The steeple sits on a peaked A-shape roof.  The steeple has four parts, a square based with one round window per side, an eight-sided level above that with large rectangular windows, an even smaller level above that with wooden shudders, again eight sides I think, and a tall steeple that comes to a very sharp point.

When I got back to work the first time I tried to draw it from memory.  But I didn’t have any visual memory.  I remember the peaked roof, the four sided box, an eight-sided box on top of it, and another eight-sided box on it, and then the steeple, so I tried to draw those geometric shapes.  It was a terrible drawing because I tried to draw all the sides.  The next time I drove by I studied it again and realized, duh!, that I only see one side of things, and only a portion of the geometric shapes, and from a certain angle.  I had started my drawing with an 3d octagon wire shape, and that’s a conceptual view, not a visual view.  So if I’m looking from the side, I’ll see one side of the 4 sides, and 3 sides of the 8 sides, and essentially a very long triangle.

To test my memory just now I found a picture of the church on the web and it’s nothing like what I remember seeing.  For some reason I remember the church as having wood siding, and it’s brick.  I did remember the wooden slates on the third level, but I didn’t remember the tall windows of the second layer.  I’m no Stephen Wiltshire.

I remember having a much better visual memory when I was young and smoked pot.  Oliver Sacks said he experimented with large dosages of amphetamines when he was young and for a few weeks could draw quite well, especially from his visual memory.  After he stopped taking the drugs he lost all ability to draw.  The poet W. H. Auden took Benzedrine to write poetry, because it helped him to concentrate intensely on detailed verbal imagery.  I assume drugs in each case helps tune out larger reality so we can zoom in on a single tiny aspect, which helps the brain focus.  But can visual memory be enhanced without drugs?

I’m pretty sure it can because of my experiment with looking at the church steeple.  If I studied that steeple every day, and tried to draw it every day, and checked my errors every day, I’d learn about seeing and drawing, but I don’t know if I would have a better visual memory.  Many of the blind people Oliver Sacks wrote about, have extremely detailed inner worlds.  They know they aren’t accurate compared to the outer world they can’t see, but they are very functional models and maps that help them live and work in reality.  One blind man even re-shingled his own roof, freaking out his neighbors because he worked at night.  Another could design machinery with his inner sight.

I think when I have flashes of visual memory it’s more like dream memory.  I have very vivid dreams, but sometimes I’ll have microsecond flashes of dream memory when I’m awake.  When I took drugs when I was a kid, some of those memory flashes would last seconds.  I remember one of flying over the Golden Gate bridge, as if I was a bird, or riding in a helicopter.  Often my flash memories are visions from great heights – and I can’t explain that.  A person with good visual memory could retain those images in their mind.  I can’t.  My memory of them are more like wordy descriptions, which probably explains why I write rather than paint.

I’ve always been impressed by 19th century scientific drawings.  Drawing was an important skill to a scientist.  I don’t know if this meant they had good visual memory, or just a good eye for detail.  And that makes me wonder if I developed an eye for detail would that enhance my visual memory?

Reproduction, © Bloomsbury Auctionsmoon-drawing

I’ve always wondered if painters had to paint 100% of what they put on canvas while observing their subjects, or did they paint some of their pictures from memory.  Often when I look at photographs I think I remember in great detail, I’m shocked to find my memories are either wrong or just fuzzy smudges at best.  People with perfect visual memories are often autistic.  Temple Grandin, a famous autistic person, profiled by Oliver Sacks and featured in the wonderful HBO movie of the same name, thinks in visual imagery.  I’ve many times wondered if animals, who don’t have our language skills, think in pictures too.

To be honest, I believe I have a poor visual memory because I go through life not paying attention to visual reality.  My life is books and words.  I think in concepts.  And I wondered if John Hull felt deep blindness was more rewarding because it allowed him to focus more intensely on concepts.  Now, I have no desire to go blind, but I can imagine after reading Sacks, that blindness isn’t the sensory depravation I once thought it was.

Also, I wonder if I can improve my current abilities.  The cliché is your hearing and touch senses improve if you go blind, but do you have to go blind to improve your other senses?  Can one enhance all our senses, or is their a limitation in brain processing?  Because I’m getting older and my memory is failing, I pay attention to all that advice about improving memory.  I started playing Words with Friends.  I used to be terrible at Scrabble, but now I keep 6-8 Words with Friends games going and I can now beat people that used to always stomp me.

I’m confident if I got some drawing books and practiced, or even took some drawing classes, I could improve my drawing skills, but I also wonder if those skills would translate into better visual memory?  Is that a physical limitation – you either have it or you don’t?

How good is your visual memory?  Post a comment.

JWH – 8/11/12