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In Search of Lost Memories

Remembering more

For encoding and storage, our memory is remarkable – taking in and representing an indefinitely large amount of information from the world. With retrieval, however, our memory is remarkably limited. In fact, retrieval remains one of the great mysteries of memory – why some memories come back to us easily, while others remain hidden, even after repeated efforts to find them. Here are some ways to encourage retrieval of personal memories from the vast, interconnected web that is memory.

Source: commons.wikimedia

1) Revisit the places of memory.

When it comes to memory, we can go home again. The places of our past provide generously effective cues for retrieving distant personal memories. Visiting places from earlier in our lives can retrieve memories that have not been recalled for many years, vividly and in detail. With its abundance of precise retrieval cues, place is truly a universal petite madeleine, calling up long-forgotten memories.

Particular locations can retrieve old memories instantly and directly. Moreover, these new-found memories call up even more memories, adding to our autobiographical memory and reversing the normal subtracting process that comes with time and age.

Revisiting the places of our past shows that retrieving a long-term memory involves two factors: the memory representation itself and the retrieval pathway to that memory. Memory representations of personal events remain vivid and intact over many years, even while retrieval pathways become hidden and inaccessible with disuse. When these tenuous pathways are reactivated by the evocative retrieval cues at the actual sites of the events, memories we haven’t thought of for years can return with surprising force and clarity.

Source: commons.wikimedia

2) Consider a particular time in your life and concentrate on one perceptual experience.

Focus on a smell or a face or a song or a bodily sensation. That focused perceptual experience can then lead to other associated experiences, ultimately revealing a more complete memory.

You can do this mentally or you can be more overtly active. Did you live near a bakery as a child? Go visit a bakery – any bakery – and see if the smells trigger memories. Replay an old song. Visit a playground and go down a slide, reliving the old sensations. See what perceptual experiences come back, and follow their leads.

If your memory involves a particular person and you know what perfume or soap that person used, find that perfume or soap, smell it, and see what images it evokes. Or if food is involved, sample this food and concentrate on the particular tastes. Marcel Proust anticipated much memory research when he noted the stream of memories flowing from the taste of a petite madeleine dipped in tea.

3) Trace back the original sources of your concepts about the world.

Talk to parents, siblings, old friends, and former teachers about particular concepts and attitudes you have. What they say can reveal the specific events that led to these concepts and attitudes.

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Experiential learning proceeds when repeated memories of similar events coalesce into general knowledge. Repeatedly going out to restaurants leads to greater understanding of restaurants in general – even as we forget the particulars of each meal.

That is one reason we sometimes mix up what happened at particular times. We overlay information from similar events like superimposed imagery, misplacing particulars while gaining more general knowledge.

That’s also why children sometimes seem to have better memories than adults. A young child may clearly remember specific interactions while shopping for clothes one afternoon because that child may have gone clothing shopping only a handful of times. The adult, however, has probably gone shopping hundreds of times. Although the child has a more vivid memory for that afternoon, the adult has a richer, fuller memory for clothing stores in general.

That’s the normal process of learning. But that process can be reversed by locating the specific events that coalesced into general knowledge. Like a strong high tide can cause an estuary river to reverse course and surge upstream, talking to people who were the original sources of our general concepts and attitudes can cause aspects of general memories to flow upstream and branch off into their specific tributaries. In that way, we can recover memories of the originating events.

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4) When a sought after memory comes to you, record it.

Describe the memory in writing or photograph a relevant artifact. Difficult-to-find memories are difficult to find for a reason. Their retrieval pathways have become overgrown and inaccessible. Such memories – however vivid when they finally return – are likely to be forgotten again. In this case, external memory is far more reliable than internal memory.

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Long-term memory contains a vast collection of events from our past. In daily life, we occasionally become aware of how much our memory holds. We walk by a strangely familiar aroma that we haven’t smelled in years and an old memory suddenly returns. While reading a book, a distinct memory intrudes into our consciousness – a memory seemingly unrelated to what we are reading. (Such involuntary memories are important to note, as they may be trying to tell you something important.)

If you are struggling to remember something from your past, take a break, but don’t give up. The memory is in there, somewhere. You just need to find the right retrieval path.