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Old 09-05-2000, 06:09 AM
nthomas nthomas is offline
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Join Date: Sep 2000
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In this week's online column Cecil mentions the case case of "Elizabeth", the woman with the super-eidetic memory. This is often cited, and I believe it was published in a respectable scientific journal, and not just in Psychology Today. However, when I was in a graduate seminar on the psychology of memory (about 16 years ago, at a major university) I was told by the professor, an expert in the field, that the "discovery" was in fact a hoax. As he told the story, "Elizabeth" was actually the girlfriend of the researcher, who had been talking to her about his interest in eidetic imagery. He had a reputation, however, for being rather gullible, and, for a joke, she, and a group of his other friends, cooked up a fake demonstration of her amazing eidetic powers. He was completely taken in, and became very excited at his amazing "discovery". But before "Elizabeth" and her friends had the time (or maybe the heart) to let the victim in on the joke, things had got out of hand, and the discovery was already well known, and, before long, published.

The etiquette of scientific publication would make it difficult to get a story like this into the formal record, and, anyway, psychologists probably do not want it too widely known how easily they can be taken in. (Perhaps, also, people were reluctant to ruin the career of the poor, duped but not dishonest, researcher.) I do remember reading, however, a report of a research project that, despite an extensive search, failed to find anyone with eidetic abilities even remotely approaching those ascribed to "Elizabeth". This would seem to lend credibility to the story that her abilities were a hoax.

I got the impression from my professor that the hoax story was quite well known amongst memory researchers. Furthermore, my impression is that psychological opinion over whether eidetic imagery (as distinct from the ordinary, relatively unreliable, memory imagery, that nearly everyone experiences) really exists, is still much more divided than Cecil seems to believe. It may be the majority opinion that it is real, but a respectable minority of researchers have their doubts. The amazing abilities of "Elizabeth" do still occasionally get mentioned in the reputable psychological literature, however. Some serious scientists do seem to believe it. I myself am no longer sufficiently close to the "in group" of memory psychologists to have heard the hoax story again, or to check out how widely it is known or believed. I wonder if anyone can confirm the hoax story or something like it, or, alternatively, can definitively confirm that "Elizabeth's" abilities were real. Perhaps, best of all, Cecil could ferret out the real facts on this for us all!