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Can You Train to Have a Photographic Memory as Good as LeBron’s?

LeBron James is one of the best physical athletes of all time, but it seems he’s also a great mental athlete for his impressive ability to recall the minutiae of the game. When a reporter asked him what happened in the fourth quarter of the recent Cavs playoff game against the Celtics, he gave a play-by-play with such accuracy and detail that he was not just applauded by reporters in the room, but the internet at large for his astounding photographic memory.

Then, as if to show how honestly he comes by it, he punctuated it with a charming shrug, spawning dozens of headlines marveling at his casual, nonchalant genius. And it’s not the first time he’s shown off what seems like an uncanny ability for filing of not just his own team’s moves, but even others. There was, for instance, the time when he told the Toronto Raptors’ Patrick Patterson where he was supposed to be standing for a play.

He’s also not the only elite player who can do it: Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Draymond Green can do it too, noting that he thinks “the best players generally remember the most and have the sharpest memories.” Kerr says it’s similar to the strategic thinking and memory of quarterbacks, adding, “I think great players remember everything.”

While his memory is impressive, it’s not really the same thing as having a photographic memory. Experts say there’s no such thing as a true photographic memory where the mind behaves identically to a camera, snapping a picture it can call up at will and zoom in and out of any part to describe with objective accuracy. That’s according to Johns Hopkins neurology professor Barry Gordon, who says such a thing has “never proven to exist.”

There is something called eidetic memory, which means you can hold an image in the mind briefly after no longer seeing it (about 30 seconds), including describing it in the present tense as if it’s still there. A few caveats: it’s not picture perfect, and usually can’t be retrieved after the fact. Only about 1 percent of the population has it, and they are all pretty much children under the age of 12. In the few adult cases that have been noted, it’s folks who are otherwise developmentally disabled. Savants in this case often have autism, or in the case of Kim Peek, the inspiration for Rain Man, a brain malformation — Peek was missing his corpus callosum, or the fibers that link the two halves of the brain. (Here’s a quiz you take to test your eidetic ability, which you will likely fail.)

There’s also superior autobiographical memory, where some people are apparently able to remember their entire lives in bewildering detail, including when it rained 15 years ago, or every movie they’ve ever watched. Like eidetic memory, it’s another condition you have to be born with, though you probably wouldn’t want to. One person who has it says she is haunted by the “never-ending stream of memories” and wouldn’t want to meet another person like her.

What LeBron likely has is probably just a combination of predisposition, immersion, and training. As Gordon writes at Scientific American:

Even visual memories that seem to approach the photographic ideal are far from truly photographic. These memories seem to result from a combination of innate abilities, combined with zealous study and familiarity with the material, such as the Bible or fine art.

Sorry to disappoint further, but even an amazing memory in one domain, such as vision, is not a guarantee of great memory across the board. That must be rare, if it occurs at all. A winner of the memory Olympics, for instance, still had to keep sticky notes on the refrigerator to remember what she had to do during the day.

In other words, if we extrapolate from Gordon’s explanation, LeBron James most likely has an above average gift for memory which he has also “cultivated through interest and training.” Watching lots of games and studying moves wouldn’t hurt, or the fact that he’s paid handsomely to do it. And people with excellent memories have often had them as long as they can remember.

That said, we don’t have to be as talented as LeBron to be that good at remembering. We just have to be as motivated and disciplined. We know that thanks to reporter Joshua Foer, who, when he set out to cover the U.S.A. Memory Championship — people who, as he puts it, get together on the weekends and memorize phone numbers, names, entire poems, decks of playing cards — expected to find superhuman, LeBron-level skills. Instead, he found what amounted to a really cool trick and a lot of practice.

“No no no, we’re not savants, we’re not freaks,” he recalls the competitors telling him. “We have trained ourselves to perform these feats of memory using ancient mnemonic techniques that were invented in Greece and perfected by the Romans.”

To better understand the process, he decided to master it, and after a year of reporting and studying, he entered the competition and won. He claims that before this, he had an “average memory.” (He turned his experiences into the book Moonwalking With Einstein.)

Interestingly, the competitors told Foer that they, too, had started with average memories, and that their seemingly superhuman feats of remembering, say, 500 random digits, is easily explained by training and technique. Scientists proved this when they studied some of the memory champs in the lab, administering IQ, cognitive and memory tests, as well as analyzing their brains structurally and anatomically for any differences. They found no differences in any of these regards, and all the tests put the mental athletes in the normal intelligence range — except for one thing.

“When they put them in an fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging] chamber and scanned their brains when they were memorizing stuff, they were activating different regions of the brain than normal people,” Foer said. “The regions of the brain they were activating involved visual and spatial memory.”

The technique the mental athletes used is called the memory palace, and it’s credited to a 5th century poet named Simonides of Ceos. The story goes, according to Foer, that Simonides was the sole survivor of a banquet hall collapse and left to inventory the dead, now buried and unrecognizable in the debris. Foer writes:

When the poet closed his eyes and reconstructed the crumbled building in his imagination, he had an extraordinary realization: he remembered where each of the guests at the ill-fated dinner had been sitting. Even though he made no conscious effort to memorize the layout of the room, it nonetheless left a durable impression. From that simple observation, Simonides reportedly invented a technique that would form the basis of what came to be known as the art of memory.

The memory palace is basically a set of techniques for “constructing a building in the imagination and filling it with imagery of what needed to be recalled.” If done correctly, one could allegedly take a walk back through the palace and see everything exactly where it had been left. It doesn’t have to be a building per se, but whatever structure or schema you adapt, according to Foer and adherents of the technique, “anyone can learn it. It’s actually fairly simple, and once you teach it to somebody and stick them in a fMRI chamber, the same regions of their brain light up, just like the memory champions.” An example he gives is incorporating a grocery list into the visual layout of, say, your childhood home.

But back to LeBron. Joe Stone, an expert in skill acquisition and performance, told the BBC that what LeBron does, while impressive, is not so different from master chess players, who analyze and memorize patterns of play. “Through lots of domain-specific practice — through the basketball players practicing a lot — they build up these really specialized and refined knowledge structures in their memory,” Stone said. “And then that allows them to predict or anticipate play.”

The real question would be whether LeBron James can remember everything else with the same ease, or if he forgets other stuff just like we all do — birthdays, where his keys are, or what he had for breakfast. Or, also worth finding out, whether he remembers this stuff because he’s put it into a memory palace, or, like the people with super autobiographical memory claim, he “Just sees it. It’s just there.”

The latter seems to be how LeBron talks about his own recall. Anecdotes suggest he’s always been this way. A childhood friend told ESPN he was able to crush when they played Madden as kids because he could remember all the previous plays they ran. And former Heat player Chris Bosh recalled what LeBron said about his own abilities once when he asked him how he could keep all this stuff in his head.

“Look, we’re all professional basketball players, so when LeBron remembers something from a basketball game, even if it’s from a few years ago, it doesn’t exactly blow me away,” Bosh told ESPN in 2014. “But it’s when he remembers other stuff, like stuff he shouldn’t even know, where you’re like, ‘What?!’ We’ll be watching a football game and he’ll be like, ‘Yeah, that cornerback was taken in the fourth round of the 2008 draft from Central Florida,’ or something. And I’ll be like, ‘How do you know that?’ And he’ll be like, ‘I can’t help it.’”

Still, all the remembering in the world doesn’t make him superhuman in performance, at least, not any more than he already is. Just as people with super great memories somehow don’t ace every test, LeBron James does not win every game. After all, the very game he had such great recall for was a loss to the Celtics, 108–83.