Recalling Information that is Difficult to Remember

There are many more stored memories than you can recall at any one time. This characteristic was referred to as the availability/accessibility distinction. That is, there is much more information available in memory than can be retrieved at any one time. So a common experience is to know that you know something, but be unable to retrieve it from memory. You can think of this information as being blocked (if you don’t remember see the blog “The Seven Sins of Memory”). I have described (TOT) Tip-of-the-Tongue phenomena where you can almost recall something so that it seems that it is literally on the tip of your tongue. There are many other less vivid occasions when you know you know something, but try as you may, that memory does not come when summoned. For example, who was the actor who won the Oscar in such and such year, and what was the name of the movie in which he won the award. You might be able to describe the physical characteristics of the actor, other movies in which he starred, but you cannot recall his name. You might also be able to describe the plot of the movie in addition to what you liked and disliked about the picture, but be unable to recall the title. Why can you not recall this information? Strategies exist for recalling these memories

One way of thinking about the way memory is constructed that helps understanding of recall failures is to think of memory as a vast, remember 100 billion nerve cells and 500 trillion synaptic connections, set of interconnecting nodes. Memory is a network of enormous complexity These recall failures can be regarded as a result of the failure for the memory circuit to excite the node with the information you want to recall. Repeated attempts to recall result in repeating the thoughts that were previously recalled without eliciting the desired information. Here trying harder can be a self-defeating strategy.

 So what can be done to recall what appears to be irretrievable information? Well, one approach is to be patient. This is analogous to the incubation strategy for solving difficult problems. Sometimes after working long and hard on a difficult problem, the solution appears out of the blue. Similarly, in the middle of the night the both the actor’s name as well as the name of the movie are recalled apparently out of the blue. How can this happen? It is important to realize that we are aware of a fairly small percentage of our cognitive activity. Remember the 100 trillion instructions per second the human brain can perform? These means that we are not aware of most of the brain circuits that are firing. So this brain activity, of which you are not aware, can eventually recall the information, retrieve the answer. Of course, there is no guarantee that the information will be retrieved, but your brain is at work even when you might not realize that it is at work.

Apart, or perhaps in addition to, subconscious mental activity, the next time you consciously try to remember the information, it might occur to you quite easily. Here the likely reason for success was a change in context that caused the memory circuits to fire differently so that the previously unactivated memory nodes were activated this time.  Again, there are no guarantees that the memory will eventually be recallable, but the possibility of recall always remains

Moreover, it is good to exercise memory in this way. This recall attempts strengthen rarely used brain circuits. Try making a regular habit of trying to recall the names of old acquaintances, experiences, and bits of knowledge that you have learned. It can be an interesting exercise to compare what you learned in school to what you have learned now. Knowledge changes rapidly in this information society.

But what strategies can be employed when there is a time constraint, when you need to recall the information now and do not have time to wait. Strategies can vary depending upon the nature of the information you are trying to recall.

One of the first things to try is to alter the context of what you are trying to recall is to get new memory circuits to fire in an attempt to find the desired node. When trying to recall a name, and perhaps even a movie title, try running through the alphabet. Does it begin with an A…a B…. and so forth.

Another way of altering the context is to stop trying to recall the name and to think about the general topic. Start free associating regarding actors, actresses, and their films. This strategy has the potential for getting you out of your unsuccessful memory loop and into new associations that could lead to the desired item. What are other movies in which this actor/actress has starred. What were the names of other actors and actress in these films. So the general strategy here is to think about related topics with the goal of getting to the desired memory.

Another useful strategy is to think of the time period in which an event occurred. Often this is a good strategy to check to see if recalled information is correct. Some events presuppose others, so if the sequence is out of order something about the memory is incorrect. But even in this case of trying to recall the name of an actor, thinking about the movie, when you saw the movie, and the events that were occurring at that time can cause you to stumble upon, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, the name you are seeking.

Always remember that memory is fallible, and even information that you are certain you have recalled correctly could be in error. So it is best to couch your recall results in terms such as, “I believe …” , I think it might have been…”, and so forth. If the information is important, never rely solely on your memory. Even if the information is something as mundane as your address, it is possible to make output (pronunciation or spelling) errors.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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