The boy who knew too much: a child prodigy

This is the true story of scientific child prodigy, and former baby genius, Ainan Celeste Cawley, written by his father. It is the true story, too, of his gifted brothers and of all the Cawley family. I write also of child prodigy and genius in general: what it is, and how it is so often neglected in the modern world. As a society, we so often fail those we should most hope to see succeed: our gifted children and the gifted adults they become. Site Copyright: Valentine Cawley, 2006 +

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Photographic memory: myth or fact?

Memory is one of the key attributes of high intellectual performance: without it, there is nothing to be thought about it. We all know people who seem to show "good" memory, but how good can memory be?

Recently, about a couple of months ago (I will find the exact date and upload it), we took Ainan Celeste Cawley, 6, and his two brothers, Fintan Nadym Cawley, 3, and Tiarnan Hasyl Cawley, then a few months, to the Singapore Art Museum.

We began a detailed tour of the paintings, going from one to another, trying to see them all. It had been about two years since our previous visit to the museum, and we thought that Ainan would, therefore, enjoy seeing the art museum again. However, he appeared to have no interest in the paintings at all. Ainan and Fintan ran around treating the art museum as a playground.

This went on for about half an hour. Finally we came to one painting, at the edge of a partition, jutting out into the body of a hall.

Ainan stopped in his running, suddenly and said: "That one used to be about books. All the others are the same as before."

My wife and I looked at each other, and realized the truth - only one painting in these galleries was different to the ones he had seen on his first visit. Every painting was the same, in the same position - except for one, which had, unaccountably, been exchanged for another.

Ainan had remembered the position and content of an entire museum full of art, which he had seen but once, in a cursory fashion two years before. Not only this, but he had noticed the one change - and had been able to say what the original painting had been about.

What is a photographic memory? Does Ainan have one? Whether or not he does, it is certain that he is able to recall a large number of random images, and their positions, two years later - and to know the content that they had had. Whatever such a memory is called, we were left somewhat stunned at this evidence of visual memory. I have met enough children to know that memorizing the contents of a museum at one glance is spectacularly unusual. More unusual still is to hold that memory for years - and to be able to comment on its content years later.

We had our explanation as to why Ainan wasn't interested in the museum, the second time around: he knew it already - and none but one was new. He was bored, with the repetition.

(For more on Ainan Celeste Cawley, six, a scientific child prodigy, and his gifted brothers, go to: )

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posted by Valentine Cawley @ 12:35 PM 


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, that is amazing.

My daughter use to do this peculiar thing of remembering the clothes someone wore the first time she met them. I don't know if she still does it. If she does she doesn't talk about it now.

Currently my daughter is reading Macbeth in class. (She goes to a special program for highly gifted.) I was tucking her in the other night and she recited lines and lines of Macbeth.

When we had her tested there was a particular section on the test that they said she had memorized before she got to the second line. She does the same at the eye doctor memorizes the chart so he has to keep changing them.

The psychologist called it a visual spatial learning style but I am not sure that quite explains what is going on in the brain.

1:15 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

What should, I think, be noted in the case of my son's memorization of a museum, is that NO EFFORT had been made to do so. He had not consciously decided to learn the contents of a museum - he had simply wandered around there a couple of years before. This is, therefore, desultory memory: memory without conscious effort.

If you think about what is involved in this task, it would be unlikely indeed that anyone could do it consciously: that is walk around a museum with the intention of being able to recall and comment on the contents two years later - and decide what, if anything, was different - and know what it had been.

Yet, Ainan Celeste Cawley, 6, did this without trying.

Your daughter's memory is certainly stronger than most - and will prove to be an asset throughout life. However, the strength of memory tends to fade as one gets older. So, she might not be able to do as an adult what she can now do as a child.

Eidetic memory - that is "photographic memory" is very rarely found in children, sadly, however, many grow out of it and no longer possess it as an adult.

Is your daughter interested in being an actress? I was rather fond of Shakespeare as a child.

Take care.

2:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, I believe you that is why I said it is amazing.

No, my child is not interested in acting but she only just turned 6. They had just started reading Macbeth in school and she memorized sections after hearing it or reading it, just like that, no effort, the same with charts. She is EG/PG depending on the test but this peculiarity may have nothing to do with that.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

Your daughter is fortunate to have access to a highly gifted education programme. My son has no such advantage. In Singapore, where we live, nothing is done for gifted children until Primary 3 - and the programme that presently exists will be scrapped before he reaches that age. The work he is required to do in school is insultingly trivial and can only be damaging to him.

Anyway, to understand what is going on here, we should examine the context in which learning occurs. In the classroom, the context is such that all that is presented in the classroom is expected to be learnt. In this way, the child will focus on the material with a view to learning it. As such, though it may be easy to learn, for a child such as your daughter, it is not a no effort situation - since there is the understanding that the material is something to be learnt. The child will therefore direct their attention to learning the material - and thus make an effort, however little that effort might be for a child gifted in memory. A test of no effort, automatic learning, would be to require the child to recount the words used in a television programme watched accidentally two years before. That is a verbal equivalent to the museum task discussed above. Clearly, that would be a superbly difficult challenge even for a child of great memory - for they would not have been expected to know it and so would not have given any particular attention to it - and so would be exhibiting desultory (no effort) learning - if they were able to recall the work at all.

Facile learning of presented material is a very positive characteristic - and I think is independent of the iq measurement of exceptionally gifted/profoundly gifted that your daughter has. You see exceptional memory is often found in savants - whose iq may be quite low. So it is a different kind of gift and not one that even PG kids necessarily have - although they tend to have fairly good memories from what I hear.

Your daughter is going to find school a breeze. Good luck.

3:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I looked in to photographic memory myself once. The definition I came across was "Being able to remember everything, including uninteresting details without trying". I thought that was unrealistic. A friend traced the term back to a comic book. So apparently "photographic memory" is a fantasy term, not a serious, clinical term.

However, they have done some research into extreme memory ability. I found reports of that online: One woman was able to memorize a poem in a language she didnt know and recite it back to the tester 15 years later. There was a report of someone, who was able to memorize long pages full of nonsense 2 letter "words", all very similar to eachother. I read (I think in the Einstein Factor) that the technique used to do that was a visualizing technique where the subject did something like imagined walking a path in the forest lined with symbols representing those 2 letter words.

I remember some pretty strange stuff, myself. Like where everyone was sitting at dinner years ago. I have "snapshots" of many, many events going back into my childhood. I even remember my parent's wedding reception from when I was 3 months old well enough that I, as an adult (despite the "blur") was able to determine where and what it was, where people were standing, and that I was being held out in the air (because of the perspective). But I dont remember details like whether anyone was wearing a watch or a ring. I also have a good affective memory. I remember the feelings of these times. I re-experience the feeling when I remember the images.

But the details escape me. I dont remember what sort of earrings my friend was wearing the other day at dinner, because I didnt consciously decide to observe them, but I do remember that the logo on one friend's shirt was white, four letters, and started with the letter M. I think it was "Move".

Come to think of it I have snapshots of many tiny details from various times, but only of things that I consciously observed - not necessarily trying to remember - but observed. Like on the toilet paper packages at my last job, which I quit on the 7th said "A Su Medida". I dont know what it means, but it stuck in my head.

Whoa... I just remembered an art show from 8-10 years ago. I remember the layout of the show, (in one big room in my high school library) which artists were where, I remember some specific pieces (6 off the top of my head), I remember the observations I made about those pieces and observations I made about other pieces that I dont have a snapshot for, like the artists that I dismissed because I couldnt learn anything from them - they werent very memorable. I could tell for sure whether anything changed at the art show, involving the interesting artist's areas. For the uninteresting ones... they could be completely re-arranged or replaced with other equally uninteresting pieces, and I bet I would never notice.

I can draw recognizable faces from memory if I study them, that might be photographic memory, but by the super technical definition of photographic memory, I dont have it, because I dont remember things I wasnt interested in, like what sort of earrings my friend was wearing. :)

Then again... I DO remember certain "atmospheric" things like the basic layout of a place, and where large objects are without consciously observing them, but I dont remember tiny details without observing them.

We can play compare visual memories if you want. :) I think it would be fun.

- Kathy

5:42 PM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

You have a gifted memory Kathy...I hope you find a way to make use of it...perhaps in your artistic work where it would have direct bearing.

As for Ainan: one thing is clear is that he had made no effort to memorize the museum and it was two years since he had first seen it...and he is quite a young boy. So, whatever the technical definition of a photographic memory might be, I would say that that particular incident showed a pretty good one at work.

Happy snapping!

7:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading few of your writings, I could not stop praising our Lord. You are been blessed by Him to have Ainan, Finan and Tiarnan. It is also a gift which lead to a big responsiblity to you from your Lord.

I would like to recommend on top of exposure to sciences, it is highly recommended that Ainan and his brothers to be exposed on holy book, Quran. Nowadays, a lot of kids memorize 6666(if i'm not mistaken) verses without understanding. But when they grew up and learn arabic, they will understand what they've memorized.
If you do not have an ustaz coming home to teach them Quran, I believe there are lot of masjids in Singapore offer this class.

There is a narration from a saying of prophet Muhammad, those who memorize Quran, he will be crowned special crown and will be blessed to recommend their parent to be on his side.

This memorization of Quran is not an easy task. Lot of parents, including myself tried and still struggling. And as Ainan has a talent to memorize with one glimpse, he shouldn't throw this chance away as memorizing Quran has a lot of blessing.

In Quran, 58:11, Allah raises a degree for those who seek knowledge in this life and hereafter.

And it is a proof to see those who dwells themselves in knowledge eg. sciences are honored in this life. How about with sincere faith to Allah, they will be honored, everlasting honor in heaven.

Houston 2007.

12:55 AM  
Blogger Valentine Cawley said...

We are indeed blessed to have such children - and are thankful for it. But then, any parent is blessed to have a child - for there are many who cannot have children.

Thank you for your suggestion as to the education of my son. I hope to nurture him to become a fully educated young man in due course. There is so much to learn - in time we will address all of importance.

Good luck on learning the Quran: that is quite a big task you have set yourself.

Best wishes

10:36 AM  

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