A Former MI6 Trained Spy Explains: How Photographic Memory Works

Warren Reed instructs a room full of would-be spies in the science of developing a photographic memory

I was about five years old when teachers started pointing out that I had a good memory. It led to always being cast as the lead in school plays, because I could reliably remember all my lines within a short period of time. I thought it was because I worked hard. Turns out it might just be because I have a photographic memory.

Rather than being something you just have - or don't - a photographic memory is actually something you can develop.

Now I'm not gonna lie - as someone who struggles to remember if I ate breakfast, being dutifully informed I have the hallmarks of a "photographic memory" by a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service and British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) trained spy Warren Reed was a little perplexing.

Reed says developing this skill is vital for a spy.

"You can't ring up or even with modern technology head on to your headquarters in London or Canberra or whatever and say, 'Oh shit, this is happening, I'm about to die, but can you email me the Chapters 3 and 4 of the training manual,'" he explains.

"You have to have all the skills ready to go, if you need to go and blow up a nuclear power plant or you need to kidnap someone and get them out of the country quickly, and render them unconscious."

No biggie.

Now when people say photographic memory, sometimes what they really mean is eidetic memory - it basically means you remember things in images, vividly, and in great detail. It's more common in kids than adults. Photographic memory generally means you can accurately recall large numbers, or pages of text.

Sitting down to chat with Gizmodo at the launch of Atomic Blonde on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD, Warren Reed started by teaching us an exercise he says can help anyone use the techniques common to someone with a naturally photographic memory.

  1. Picture your childhood home

    "Imagine your childhood family home," Reed starts. "Or it could be the place you live now, if you've been there for some time - that's okay too. It just needs to be a place you know really well, that has lots of areas, nooks and crannies."

  2. Create a "circuit"

    "Now imagine a circuit you would walk through that home that you know well," Reed instructs. "Start at the front door, and go to through the hallway, to the kitchen, bathroom and bedrooms. Go all around your house, and then make your way back out the front door. Along the way, notice nooks and crannies, such as shelves, tables, etc. Keep that circuit in your head."

  3. Picture the things you need to remember

    "Observe the situation around you," Reed explains. "What do you need to remember? Is it something someone is saying, are they telling a story? Is it an image, where you need to remember the exact colour and shape of something, or is a setting in a room that you need to remember the placement of each object? Is it a long number? Is it a sequence of events?"

  4. Break down the elements

    "Now, take each important element of the situation, conversation, story, setting or image that you need to remember, and place it in an area of your house on the circuit," says Reed. "For example, put it on a shelf, or on top of the cupboard. Keep placing each element in an area of the circuit along the way."

  5. Make it silly

    "The more graphic and ridiculous it is, the more it will stick in your memory. If it's a long number, or a sequence of things, ascribe an unusual or human element to each element you place, for example give it teeth, make it quack, or give it a particular colour or texture."

  6. Walk the circuit

    After placing each element you need to remember at a "stop" on your circuit, do a walk-through.

    "By placing the element that you need to remember in an area on a circuit that you know well, you are fixing that unknown element to something known, and are embedding the element in your memory,"Reed explains.

Just remembering stuff like a boss, nothing special.

And guess what? It works. Try it yourself.

I was given a list of things to remember a week ago - and I can still "see" them today.

16 green limes are hanging in a big on the back sliding door (there's a "16" written in dripping green paint above the handle), a Harley Davidson motorcycle is perched on the kitchen bench, there's a scale model of the Titanic on the dining table, a tiny painted clay recreation of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersberg next to the bookshelf, with pieces of the Berlin Wall on the middle shelf.

Looking over at the TV cabinet, there's some numbers on top - this is the bit that I struggle with remembering - in those big white letters you get from Typo. Heading down the hallway, to my left in Intercontinental Ballistic Missile - the words "Mark 3" printed on it in red. On my right, a five litre bottle of ammonium nitrate is in my sister's doorway. Next to her room is my parent's, a yellow submarine taking up almost the whole room, balancing on their bed.

In my old room - there's a Japanese character painted on the door, which is ajar, in black.

I can remember these forwards, backwards - I can add more objects - I've practiced with up to 50 now (reed says up to 100 is possible.) I'm good with words, with things, but remembering the numbers though? That's a little trickier for me.

Reed has a tip for that, as well.

"I've always had an affinity for colour," Reed told us. "My sister and I both had this because mum was big in flowers and she loved art and she'd often say look at this lovely green, or the Spring leaves out on that Elm tree - and we noticed everything through our mother. My sister and I still live our lives looking through mums eyes."

When in training for MI6, one of the instructors pulled Reed aside.

"How did you remember all of that? In the wash up you just repeated it all!"

"Well I just memorised the whole of that, all of that, and I didn't forget anything in it," Reed told him, perplexed.

The trainer pressed him. "You know when you talked about the contrast between the lolly pink car parked just near the red public phone box? None of the others noticed. The looked at it, but they didn't see it. It's incredibly unusual, but you saw it - are you aware of the fact you have a photographic memory?"

Apparently is was the way he linked things together that gave it away. And that colour-matching? It's what works for numbers and dates, too.

Reed tells of a day after one particular training exercise where he had to remember lots of dates - years, months and days of the week he was once again approached to reveal his methods. Because he didn't get a single one wrong. Reed didn't miss a beat.

"When you first mention Wednesday," he told his trainer, "like Wednesday to me - if someone says 'oh lets meet on Wednesday next week' - Wednesday to me is a soft jade green colour."

Thursday to Reed is the colour of fresh green of leaves when they come out in the Spring. Friday is brown "with fire, flames, those fiery colours". Monday is pale blue.

He does this for months as well. "September is a pale mauve, pale lilac sort of colour."

From now on, for me, Monday will be brilliant white, Tuesday fire engine red, Wednesday a rich purple, Thursday will be sky blue, Friday green, Saturday black - and Sunday yellow like the sun.

I'm working on the months.

A big thanks to the folks at Universal Sony Pictures and Atomic Blonde for giving us time with Warren Reed.

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