How to Retrieve a Memory You Thought You’ve Lost Forever
The power of recalling your surroundings
There are vague memories and those that you don’t remember at all.
Both can be retrieved by harnessing the power of details.
These are the weak links of the main content of your memory and they can be used as ropes to pull back that core memory.
They are usually considered not important but they’re a tool in disguise. In this category we’ll find:
The weather on the day of that memory.
The time when it happened (morning, late night, etc.).
The sound environment (e.g. if it was loud or silent, if there was any background music, etc.)
And any other aspect that adds context to the main event.
Your mind treats them as inconsequential, but thanks to their low relevance, you can penetrate more deeply into your mind and doge the memory’s resistances along the way.
They’re the key to opening the door to the emotionally charged memory.
So how do you do it?
Recreate the scene with peripheral information
Even if our brains process millions of bits of information per second our conscious minds usually work with a tiny fraction of this flood of stimuli.
But it’s enough to recreate the scene.
All these bits of information are stored somewhere and they will be key to unraveling the bigger picture.
Think of them as long and thin strings that when pulled together will bring back this heavy and distant memory.
You can either ask someone you trust to help you with the questions or do it yourself, but the procedure is the same.
Start with the most basic questions:
Where did this memory take place (city)?
Did it take place indoors or outdoors?
Did it happen in the morning, around lunch, evening, or late at night?
Did you feel particularly hot or cold?
Was there any noise, or music, or was it very quiet?
If you can’t remember one, try to answer the next question. You’ll slowly start forming a more complete mental image of the situation you were in when it happened.
Our brains would overload very quickly if it wasn’t for our selected attention. But when we’re trying to recreate the scene, we still have a lot to start with.
Take advantage of all those inputs and see where it leads you.
The before and after
Don’t get to the memory’s essence just yet.
Take your time and try to understand how you ended up there.
There was an action that led you to that situation. Describe it. If it was a recurring experience, tell in broad terms what did you use to do in those situations. Stick to the actions without any judgment. Just let the event sequence flow back to your conscious mind.
The aftermath of the situation may also be addressed. How was the atmosphere after the event took place? What were you feeling or thinking? What did you do after? If the action took you to another place, describe it as vividly as possible.
You’re painting the edges of your picture before addressing the most delicate part of the drawing.
The situation itself
Sometimes it’s not necessary to look at the before and after events and you can skip them to address the main event.
If you’re deeply focused on activating your sensory memory from that moment, you might get distracted trying to recall the before and after events. You might want to stay and explore the main event more deeply.
On other occasions, if your sensory memory doesn’t serve you well, it might help to get more information from these other parts before diving into that moment. That’s when recalling the before and after events might help you prepare for the dive.
Don’t try to answer the “why” question directly here.
Your mind might exert more resistance and try to push you away from the big revelation. The “why” implies a more sophisticated level of reasoning, and we’re not yet prepared for that stage.
Just let the thin and long strings we talked about earlier take you to it.
Try answering the “how” and “what” questions instead:
What triggered the event?
What did you or the other person say?
How did the scene develop? In terms of the emotions you felt, the actions you took, and the thoughts you had at that moment.
We want the memory to resurface on its own with gentle pushes along the way. If you force it too much, it might push back with equal force. And in the end, you won’t get anything out of it.
Let it come to you.
When the memory doesn’t resurface
You shouldn’t insist on the memory itself if it’s not coming back to you.
Instead, try to think of another situation. The first one that comes into mind, irrespective of its relevance to the core memory. Let your mind hop to the next one seamlessly.
Your mind might be trying to connect to the next important memory like a magnet would to the nearest magnet in the vicinity.
There’s probably some type of link between these two memories, but not in the way you think. The case might be that you experienced a similar emotion, or you had an insight that pertains to both situations. It doesn’t need to be a literal copy of your original memory.
Let it take you and see what happens.
A real-life example
I was talking with a client about his insecurity regarding a person he was dating.
He and his significant other weren’t officially a couple but they were going out frequently. Sometimes when she said she was going out she wouldn’t say with whom. He would just get a very vague answer from his date and the next time they talked everything would seem normal.
But his mind would play tricks on him. He would create all sorts of fantasies in his head that would leave him anxious. All pertained to the same situation: she cheated on him.
Where was this coming from?
So I asked him to tell me about something from his past, whatever came to mind first. It didn’t have to be relevant to the situation.
He told me about the long and frequent trips he had to take by train for his first job. He would try to sit by the window, put his headphones on, and get things done for work.
I’d ask about this situation more deeply:
At what time of the day would you take these trips?
Was it usually hot or cold inside (maybe too much AC)?
Was it usually a crowded train? Were people talking out loud or was it a silent type of ride?
What was your seat made of? Was it comfortable?
He told me how he used these rides to get some extra work done but now that I mentioned it, it wasn’t all about work. He also used to talk on the phone with friends from time to time. And now it came to mind that he had a conversation with his ex in which she would say that she was going out to meet someone, but she wouldn’t say who. The ride became the perfect nesting place for wild cheating fantasies in his mind.
He looked at me completely surprised. He said that he didn’t remember he had this memory up until now. It popped into his mind from nowhere when he least expected it.
The memory he thought wasn’t related to his present situation, ended up being just the thing he needed at that moment.
Unlocking hidden memories with music
The viral video of the former ballerina with Alzheimer's performing “The Swan Lake” dance is a powerful testament to the incredible ability of music to retrieve memories that we once thought were lost forever.
It’s a reminder of the profound connection between music and our memories, particularly in individuals with neurodegenerative conditions.
While Alzheimer's disease progressively affects memory and cognitive functions, the evocative power of music can reach deep within the recesses of the mind, triggering emotions and memories that may otherwise remain inaccessible.
In the case of the former ballerina, the familiar notes of 'Swan Lake' acted as a key to unlocking her dormant memories and igniting her muscle memory, allowing her to flawlessly perform the dance she had once mastered.
Music has the ability to bypass damaged areas and establish connections with preserved neural pathways, providing individuals with moments of clarity and emotional resonance. It taps into the emotional center of the brain, evoking nostalgia and familiarity that transcends the cognitive impairments caused by Alzheimer's.
It demonstrates that even in the face of cognitive decline, the language of music can bridge the gap, bringing joy, comfort, and a sense of identity to those who may feel disconnected from their memories.
We store more information about a situation than we think.
It usually pertains to our senses (e.g. smell, sound, touch) and these are linked to the core memory but aren’t necessarily emotionally charged. If we’re able to access these weak ties to the main memory, we can get around the mind’s resistance and dig up the memory we were looking for.
Describing our surroundings in that moment will help us recreate the scene more vividly. And when the time comes, our memory will resurface.
You can go through this process alone or with somebody your trust, but if I had to choose between the two, I would rather do it with someone than on my own. It helps you gain a more objective perspective (the one you need to better paint your memory’s surroundings) and talking it out loud can bring further insight into the situation.
You have a powerful tool hidden in your sensory memory, will you choose to use it?
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