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Is There Such a Thing as Photographic Memory?

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The best early ‘90s children’s bookshelves were full of books about child detectives, from Nancy Drew to Encyclopedia Brown to Cam Jansen, the fifth grade super-sleuth with a photographic memory. She was called “Cam,” short for “camera,” because she would close her eyes and say, “click!” to instantly memorize every detail of a scene. It’s the kind of thing that seems too good to be true—a perfect fictional device endowing a fifth-grader with nearly foolproof crime-solving skills—but does anyone really have a memory as accurate as a camera?

The short answer, sadly, is no: “photographic memory” is mostly hype and hyperbole. Studies conducted on eidetic memory—the medical term for a super-accurate memory, and the examined phenomenon closest to what popular culture calls photographic memory—have varied in their diagnoses of savants like Stephen Wiltshire, whose feats of applied memorization include drawing entire city skylines unassisted after a brief helicopter ride above them. Despite claims that such diverse figures as physicist Nikola Tesla, composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Mr. T of A-Team fame (among others) possessed a photographic memory, scientists have understandably found it difficult to construct a standardized test for it. When documented memory experts like the yearly winners of the World Memory Championships make no secret of the techniques and conscious practice they use to assist their memorizations, it’s hard to determine the difference between a photographic memory and sheer hard work.

Eidetic memory, as distinct from photographic memory, is an uncommon but not unheard-of phenomenon, thought to occur in 2 percent to 15 percent of children. Presented with a 30-second view of an illustration on an easel, “eidetikers” are capable of vividly describing the image after its removal. They describe its details immediately, accurately, and in the present tense; their gaze glances around the empty easel as if the illustration still remains. The true test of their skill is a set of apparently random dots, and a second image shown an appropriate interval of time after the first; those with truly eidetic memories can recall both disparate images and mentally combine them to render a single, 3D image that would require normal viewers to use a stereoscopic viewer. The feat is a remarkable one, but even eidetic memories fade, and very few adults retain the childhood gift into their later years.

The possibility of photographic memory’s existence is fascinating, but has yet to be backed up by anything other than (admittedly incredible) anecdotal evidence. Even if a picture is worth a thousand words, it’s probably still best to use a camera to make sure you remember each one.

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Why You Should Never Take Your Shoes Off On an Airplane
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What should be worn during takeoff?

Tony Luna:

If you are a frequent flyer, you may often notice that some passengers like to kick off their shoes the moment they've settled down into their seats.

As an ex-flight attendant, I'm here to tell you that it is a dangerous thing to do. Why?

Besides stinking up the whole cabin, footwear is essential during an airplane emergency, even though it is not part of the flight safety information.

During an emergency, all sorts of debris and unpleasant ground surfaces will block your way toward the exit, as well as outside the aircraft. If your feet aren't properly covered, you'll have a hard time making your way to safety.

Imagine destroying your bare feet as you run down the aisle covered with broken glass, fires, and metal shards. Kind of like John McClane in Die Hard, but worse. Ouch!

Bruce Willis stars in 'Die Hard' (1988)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

A mere couple of seconds delay during an emergency evacuation can be a matter of life and death, especially in an enclosed environment. Not to mention the entire aircraft will likely be engulfed in panic and chaos.

So, the next time you go on a plane trip, please keep your shoes on during takeoff, even if it is uncomfortable.

You can slip on a pair of bathroom slippers if you really need to let your toes breathe. They're pretty useless in a real emergency evacuation, but at least they're better than going barefoot.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


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Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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