Some reflections on the possibilities to recollect a forgotten memory

Approaching an issue like the one of rescuing ideas from the pitfalls of memory, which is always partially possible by trying to discern, to dissect the thematic elements of what it is that’s missing, I could have chosen to merely explore the practice and the benefits of regular meditation here, since there are hundreds, if not thousands of posts on the subject, spawned especially in the last few years, as sort of a productivity booster, giving you that deserved time to meaningfully unburden yourself from the pressure of the everyday.

So meditation encourages you to clear your mind, and see your problems more reservedly, with less emotion attached to them and more rationale. And that is useful when you need to calm down, and diffuse stress, but it will not help you make use of impressions that may contain useful nuggets of insight for you.

Therefore, I am instead going to take a more tractably applicable, if far from exhaustive approach to reflecting on our momentary impressions and will consult the strategies that may help all of us creatives with recollecting the bits and pieces of ideas that have left a trace, making us restless with anticipation of enlightenment which demystifies, if only it has not dissipated in a flash, and now seem less tangible as some sort of original inspiration.

For any recollection effort to ultimately be successful, it has to first be open to even a new outcome, because only that way it can stir enough mental excitement to shape up its most primitive and still more fading junction of the idea.

We must not be naive to think that an idea, even a fresh one, is not but an assembly of countless strokes and stripes wowen together at a moment, not all of which are new, but merely recollected to fit in as a puzzle in a tapestry where they would compatriotically make sense, because in countless other mutations it didn't before. So those other lines of paper then have to scrapped once it fits.

Now, ‘how soon after forgetting memory the recall of it occurs is more likely to happen successfully only very soon after’, that is, of course, if we consciously desire it, and make an effort to understand why we want it in the first place, i.e., our state of mind at the time, what we wanted then, and what we acted like about it, or because of it.

When the pressing desire to remember is awakened in us:

Memories, and the ideas they enable, are not independent of context, and the assembly of recorded memories is important, or whether you know for sure that you forget them in fact. Which is why our actions, even if not precisely the same as ever before, can recall a very precise memory of a similar act in broad strokes, and with all of its actually important differences in place too.

This notion is colloquially refereed to as ‘deja-vu’, and there is probably not a single human who hasn’t experienced it at times, ‘ it’s a sign of our brain checking its memory, therefore the differences and surrounding situations that necessitated this action may also become apparent to you via this at once familiar, yet so much fascinating process of recollection.

And some days will in fact be better than others in encapsulating all of the necessary, nuanced detail of the recollection, so that it doesn’t have to feel like a shade of its former self, but invoke just as much, sometimes even more of the vigorous excitement in you that it once did.

Still, there remains at hand the problem of whether past memories have any hope of being recollected again reasonably precisely given enough will, or need an entirely new stimulus to come about all over again in a modified form.

Here I think a certain clarification of the process of remembering, which is often popularly misunderstood as the ‘ability to recall memories at will’, would be well placed:

While I do believe this to be possible in principle, it is nevertheless a rather time-consuming process. If recalling impressions at will in undisputed formulations was possible, that would be called — not actually forgetting the idea in any sense, but remembering it perfectly well, just not thinking about it at all times. That is different from attempting to recollect ideas. Remembering ideas that have been diminished takes time, but it is a structured process.

What I want to demonstrate is that despite popular belief, it is possible to:

1.) Recall a fleeting idea precisely with some deliberate non-linear effort, but without it containing any new core modifications, except of course a lingering awareness of its significance, whilst it may happen that you will end-up using different words, or simpler mental images to express but the same principle as before. (Gene Wolfe’s method of editing will illuminate this point for you: it’s not always helpful ‘trying too hard to get everything down in one go and move the story ahead’. Yet using more words when revising our already acquired thoughts, to better illuminate the original idea is certainly a useful practice to adopt in working with memory.

2.) Having an imperfect, fragmentary recording of a stimulus can nevertheless still prove enough to direct search for the correct impression nevertheless, even if you capture other inputs and sensations during the recollection process. Hence a weak recollection is not the same as not having memory at all. The effort does not have to be exhausting and bleakly depressing either.

When recovering a memory, which is in essence the semblance of an idea, it is first important for us to find, that is, to navigate towards at least two most stably plausible thematic framing points, a fixed, or stable set of presumptions we'll carry around the two points, or reasoning gaps, between which we could hence then start squeezing our rememberance brainstorming into, but at least withing a framed scope.

The whole searching process can be an interesting path of discovery in its own right, even if you are swimming in cliches around that one refreshing idea that captivated you, which is put together mainly from associative formulation and probing, undermining the idea at every turn, putting it into different scenarios, mentally answering the question ‘so if…this situation were to happen, would the underlying assumption not crumble because…, what are the exceptions to, and when is it true’, to prevent the idea be perceived as insignificant, thin, or hollow and so dismissed as irrelevant in the mind, and thus not worth preserving even on a sheet of paper, which would almost definitely be regretted later, because you feel the untapped potential there somewhere at least, you feel that any cliches could be brushed aside, smoothed out, if only you keep the concept around in your head for a few days, so it can shake any small cliches that are bound to surround great ideas, like islands of sand around an island of your different approach.

Then there is you, asking why it’s different and by being your own biggest doubter, an inner critic, you can sharpen the already cool idea even more.

Yet in academia for example, Roediger and McDermott in their 2010 research study on the subject, and Morris before them in his 2007 study ‘Memory: Distinctions and dilemmas’ assert precisely this fact, that every successful recollection from memory does also necessarily modify and distort the content of that memory itself.

Such an assertion is problematic, not because it cannot be true that when we are trying to bring to mind an old idea, that we do not think up new ideas in the process as well. That is certainly the case, because the ‘more you exercise your brain, the better it will work’ across its entirety by the very nature of its function, which does always include attaining entirely new observations.

But nevertheless, having a different emphasis, in terms of importance on a string of previously acquired ideas can lead to more honest interpretations of one’s existing meaning quite well. We can be arrive at our old thoughts, and simply have a different opinion about them over time, understanding them differently, while being able to actually arrive at the old content of memory.

The process of forgetting is constant simply because the speed of human expression, written or verbal, is definitely oftentimes just too slow to be able to capture all incoming variants of a thought, hence even if you know an idea from all sides, in hindsight, you can only ever capture so much of it, that certain related impressions, insights and focuses which occurred to you will be lost, even if you start writing as much of them as you could, immediately.

But I argue that what doesn’t have to be lost is a direction, a theme the aim of a thought, which are all the ropes that can, after some deliberation lead to the original idea then again recognised perfectly well, not as new insight, but as at a certain point previously, already in the mind, distinct from new thoughts that may be related, but which after a recollection we recognise as different.

What the process of remembering actually means for you:

A prevalent implication about recollection nowadays has been first asserted by Bartlett back in 1932 that by creating new ideas in the process of trying to remember, we can never precisely recall an old memory as well, that any ‘retrieved details actually becomesurprisingly unreliable’ and by our very effort of getting them back to the forefront of our mind, we necessarily distort what was once there without realising it.

Yet, figuring out new associations is not always the result of us being conditionally unable to recall the exact meaning and intent of our previous musings as they were, which is possible, if only we focus on our intentions and towards what aspects of life our overarching desires were geared during the time that the original idea came to us, desires and feelings that rest on hope, and may well occur to you in figurative terms at first, that are different to the original interpretation, which then makes it harder to know where to start and stop searching for retrieval, I must admit.

For me rather, it is the case that new associations in the process of recollection must happen only because we are no longer satisfied with the old ideas even if we’ll manage to remember them precisely in the end, since ‘thoughts are most beautiful for us in the moment of their birth; later we can often sense a deep pain that they leave us indifferent where earlier they enchanted us. — Robert Musil’

Furthermore still, you sooner or later would have to accept that language is by its very nature, and by its ontological variety imperfect, that your mental processes will differ slightly from how you recorded them no matter what, then you can begin to accept that our thinking process is much less linear then our language. This means that we would always mean something a little bit more, and something that’s a just a notch different then what we record about it, even if we are diligent.

The ‘problem of the inadequacy of language…is that there are more phenomena in the world, then there are words for them…we must use language in a different way to capture the experience of things, about the impression they make, rather then about the things themselves (ref. Descombes on Proust)’. That is roughly the difference between actual truth of our insight, and our memory of it, which is why striving for a different view of a problem one has already resolved can lead to a better formulation of the problem, even in cases where we are sure that we have captured it and need not to think about it any longer. This is the idea of acknowledging memory’s fluid nature, letting it prosper by pondering about one issue over and over to get a more perfect picture, and a more encompassing picture rooted in that already recorded idea, as opposed to just being satisfied with some basic contours of a single thought.

Explored territories will keep offering themselves anew, in fact, once you are on the right track with your theme and your intention, it is possible to almost brainstorm freely and you are sure to hit your familiar concepts, back in the forefront of the brain again, just like back when it came to you at first.

But now take notice with proper diligence at least, because an impression is best understood when considered in stages, when you know it has existed, but you mature, and understand it once again after a while. This so that you can then unpack its abstract notions into more concrete definitions against a greater set of real-world situations, and consciously fine-tune it.

The key to understanding ‘when recollection succeeds, is that the recollection of a previous memory is [crucially aided by high confidence in its conceptual extent’, that means, in the eventual intent, in the aim that you are seeking intellectually, and in the nature of conduct that memory represented to us.

You have to keep yourself restless about the implications of this abstractly concurred original meaning, which usually encompass various actual scenarios under one term, denoting in some tangible detail what we could personally achieve under a desirable thematic bent, and distilling our surrounding experiences at a given place, or time from a complete general understanding of what’s going on, into the absolute essentials that they could represent in the environment, minding our desired focus. It is an exclusion and narrowing of focus that takes the other variables which could contribute to our thought as separate factors and works them backwards as well, mixing and pointing them against each other.

In this way, taking our full attention, very slowly, the forgotten concept can then come back again by working out backwards the steps to actually get into that state that we perceive to have had in some capacity before.

Essentially, ‘in order to improve your ability to recognize and memorize… you need to be interested in and passionate about what you’re doing’ it all for, and what your hope given the circumstances of when the idea occurred to you was. It’s formulation, it’s key, is usually much simpler than it appears when you don’t know it, but it still has an impact on you after coming back.

This method of remembering will also be responsible for the fact that no new ideas which occur to you, even when they are clearly different from previous memories, would not be quite inferior in style, all because you knew that an intriguing thought of a certain nature had existed in your head sometime in the first place.

So, the only good thoughts that are truly forgotten are those which we repeatedly and relentlessly choose to ignore even as they come back, because in the moment that we know about them they seem to us easy enough to remember, since they use our own personal way of speech and thinking to get formulated in the first place, so to us they have a very apparent internal logic, which makes us often arrogantly to believe that we can recollect them by just using our common sense, without the need to write our best ideas down. We behave like that when we are tired, or just too confident in how to execute the idea.

But previously acquired ideas are only rarely perfectly inscrutable anyway, and we can try analyzing them for their defects given enough time and distance that we hold from the moment when they sort of instinctively came to us.

This very process keeps us creating, and even partial, thinking about what it was surely not, or otherwise incoherent and puzzling recollections do launch within us at least the relevant ‘thread with which the original idea is connected by the association of thoughts (Schopenhauer in, tWaWaI)’ in some way, making a hasty recording far from useless actually, even if it is still better to just be diligent when commuting your mind to paper.

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