Some reflections on the possibilities to recollect a forgotten memory

Memory is only really fleeting, once curiosity vanishes

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 - given that 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.

The notion that nothing, that's once occurred to us is forgotten again, only receded to the background, because there must always remain a vague inkling of what was lost so that we can now to have lost something in the first place, that is that any new idea is part of an existing context that even a vague notion of will eventually lead us to assemble the thoughts we're specifically looking for may be true, if we are not afraid to take even the faintest recollection further on, though we may not trust that it has occurred to us under the same circumstances as it does now.

It doesn’t matter: If it seems like it could allude to something prior, however odd it may seem, we must try to unwind that mysterious road all the way to its entirely logical conclusion to find the former ideals that moved us before.

The saying that ‘the toughest recollections have the simplest, most tightly and closely formed explanations’ (though you may have heard it differently :-) ?), is proven true for most efforts to remember. It is less the memory itself, and more our abstract notion of what it felt like for us, hence trying to pick it apart from there, and orient our senses that way again, is what clouds the memory’s content most.

It’s not about parsing the idea into the same exact words as before, which must not have been specific enough to nail down the interpretation completely anyway, but exploring the same substance again anew.

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.

One should, focusing on their old idea’s general thematic orientation, not find it altogether impossible to at least remember, if what the idea described was realistic, or fantastical, maybe even outwardly, or merely domestic...?

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.

The second illustrative image my rambling essay on memory, ideas, and recollection

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

1.) Recall a fleeting idea precisely enough, 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.

A weak, vague 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'd 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'd 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's 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.

Hence, 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.

Succeeding to engage curiosity about something seemingly ordinary, is the way for recalling a forgotten insight in regards to it. The process of recollection, of piecing things together after they lapsed from immediate memory, is almost always even more lively and involved than the initial, spontaneous experience itself. It can have its very own inspirational moments that were not even there while the original was coming about.

Some light on the techniques for recollecting previously forgotten, but consciously acquired ideas has been shed by a study entitled ‘An uncommon type of transient loss of memory’ in 1968, as well as in the 1973 study on the same subject that’s called ‘Retrieval difficulty and subsequent recall’, found in the journal ‘Memory & Cognition, 1’.

In essence, those studies argue that when an idea comes to you, it is possible to create certain easy phrases (incorporate ‘cues’) from regular vocabulary, and/or situations common enough that they’re bound to bring that exact idea back to you when you are under the same mood again, but have forgotten it and strive to remember.

Those stimulants need to be quite obvious, but yet narrow enough to be of any help, so more like little phrases, your own feelings, frustrations and hopes bound to everyday items, locations, or events which you can routinely encounter to get your mind working again.

The objects can be general, and don’t have to be exclusively tied to only one concept, but given your mood and the wide theme that you are tackling in the word, they must help you to slowly reverse engineer your forgotten idea, by working through your points of reference one-by-one, all the way to the original impression.

Because we all have our own personal ideologies, which are our aspirational bends, and becoming conscious of them, while shaping them to be more and more coherent and constructive as an outlook upon our personal existence, will then mean that no matter how many different articles one might write, and no matter in what ways they will get interpreted, there must be an underlying message the author wishes to say: Like a singular, if sweeping legacy that underpins ALL the work created under that name.

It merely depends if one takes every idea that comes into their mind as already a project lost and gone away when its abstract, universal wording is in part forgotten. Any theoretical remembrance can only again be fragmentary, that is, have an inkling of profoundness which will be striking and at which we can, again as the first time, pause and dwell.

Yet because the recollection of concepts, or ideas’s fragmentary, these fragments need be freshly elaborated with insight, to gain a reproductible significance, a solid differentiating factor for themselves.

Sometimes, two versions of a thought leading to the same conclusion can be in conflict, and their presence can negatively, reductively affect each other, or our further plot development.

In that case, I combine them if can be, or update the language to one more prone of dismissal under this-or-that viewpoint, assuming very little necessary sweeping, abstract notions for the ideas to be adaptable in situations of the real world, pointing to as many possible situations and scenarios that only confuse you, and jeopardise the recollection, as Schopenhauer teaches well.

Every time an idea occurs to you, try to codify it into just one scenario, specific images, sounds in your head, locations. Do not try to formulate your ideas in all-encompassing abstract ways, even if that gives your idea a sort of allure of grandness.

I would argue that an idea too specific may not then upon recollection reveal itself to be universally applicable as you may wish it to be, but it is possible to treat even the most narrow idea as having abstract origins in a bigger narrative by default. In fact, such a creative mindset is bound to make every idea more complex and nuanced just by association.

Although it isn't necessarily bad, as an idea comes to you to make an evolving progression in your mind out of it for the sake of clarity either, to fragment one idea up into many logically subsequent parts.

What's most important, is to have the core premise in mind, with a willingness to explore wherever this core premise, the string of all the areas you need to touch to arrive at conclusions of similar magnitude you once had, can take your mind later.

Yet even the last remaining glimpses of an idea do not always reliably lead to the idea itself, but only what was already familiar and occurred to us right after the eureka moment itself, although this glimpse is not an eureka moment itself, leading us after the wrong clues, or whether one strives for a particular kind of idea with the echoes of the same belief still present, but e.g. for a social, economic etc, shading of the same concern.

Along these lines ran the belief of C.S. Lewis as well. It’s the best, timeless piece of creative advice I have ever got, be it from a person I’ve never met, but still he changed my outlook on the creative process in a fundamental way.