“The true art of memory is the art of attention.”
— Samuel Johnson
|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2021. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
Memory is not a record of the past, it’s a resource for acting in the present. You remember in order to know what to do or not to do. You don’t remember for nostalgic purposes.
Every experience we have is far richer than we are able to perceive or remember. Take a moment to observe yourself watching and listening. After you’re gone through the motions, go back and do it again, but this time look beyond what you were looking at and listen to what you didn’t notice.
For the smartest beings in the universe, we certainly don’t see, hear, or remember much. There have been savants who remember everything, and their brains appear no different than ours. We could remember so much more, but we don’t. And the reason we don’t is because it would be a waste of resources. The question we might ask is, given the incredible things our brains are capable of, is why aren’t we doing more with it?
Kim Peek, the real person on whom the character in Rain Man was based, liked to memorize things: street maps, phone books, and books of zip codes. He knew the phone numbers of tens of thousands of people, as well as their street addresses, zip codes, and the precise street directions to get between one address and another… across continents. In addition to eidetic memory, meaning that he didn’t forgot things, he had photographic memory, meaning he could see things once for a second and remember them exactly. He read two pages at once, one with his left eye and the other with his right eye.
To be fair, Kim had abnormal neurology, but most savants are otherwise normal. On the other hand, we know so little of how the mind works that perhaps these savants have exceptional structures we don’t perceive. But since we don’t see this, let’s assume it’s not true. Let’s just say that we’re tuned to a more modest level.
You cannot function without a recollection of the past and a vision of the future. People who have lost their memory don’t know who they are. People who can’t form new memories can’t function. There appears to be an equivalence between the ability to remember and the ability to foresee as some amnesias prevent you from conceiving of the future (Tulving, 2005). Without memory we have no control.
Memory is not identity. A person can have a deep, balanced, and stable self awareness as well as full cognitive abilities and yet have no episodic memory. They can have absolutely no recollection of any episodes of their lives and still retain the power to converse, think, run, act, perform, contemplate, and calculate. From this it is clear that different forms of memory are stored in different places in our brains.
We’re not conscious of much of what we remember. At this moment, somewhere in your mind, you possess countless memories from your childhood. You’re not thinking of and don’t even know what they are. Yet with effort, concentration, and some reminders you can recall a biography of details you don’t currently remember.
Without such efforts, all we have is a pseudo memory of what we remember. We think we remember and that we could remember, but we don’t have access now and there is no index. We can’t say much about our memories in the current moment except that we think they’re there.
We might assume there is a kind of pyramid structure to memories in which a few narrow peaks offer paths down into wide forests of detail. We think these forests of detail exist to support whatever isolated peak we can recall, but until we explore these memories we can’t say much about what detail they contain.
Memories are not single things stored in isolation. If they were, then when they were recalled, give how full of errors our memories are, they wouldn’t fit together. What we remember is a broad complex such that when we recall the wrong person in an old scene, we recall that wrong person in all the old scene’s memories.
We remember more than we’re conscious of. There are reports of hypnosis drawing out memories of facts or feelings that we thought we forgot or were unaware we knew. Attention and focus training can improve recall and don’t require hypnosis. This is what we confirm with neurofeedback training. We have more recall than we presume and memories we didn’t know we had (Kihlstrom, 1995).
It’s also found that this sort of evocation leads to recalling more false than true memories on a factual basis. However, just as past life memories can be labeled as false, that does not mean factually untrue memories are of low value. As I said, memory is not there to record the past but to guide the future, and the false memories that are recalled—at least in the therapeutic context—often provide the best guidance.
A person induced to a state of dissociative trance, in which they are unaware of the outside world but are aware of what’s being said to them, can memorize a list of words perfectly and be asked not to remember them unless they are given a command. When taken out of trance, these subjects can’t remember learning anything but, upon the proper command, they can fully remember the list of words.
There are two prominent kinds of recollection: direct recall otherwise known as explicit memory, and indirect recall know as implicit memory. Direct recall is what happens when you need to think of something and it spontaneously appears: a word, name, or location. Indirect or implicit memory relies on association, takes longer, is strengthened by establishing conceptual relationships, but it is none the less mysterious
With direct memory we feel helpless when we draw a blank. It’s like a magic trick that didn’t work. With indirect memory we are more patient though hardly more involved. In the case of indirect memory, we say a few magic words, such as a person’s appearance or personality, and then their name appears. The rabbit jumps out of the hat.
The hypnotized learner cannot consciously remember the list of words they memorized until commanded to do so. These unremembered words are still in their memory but can’t be retrieved directly. Direct recall seems to involve some executive function that can be halted when a person agrees not to use it.
On the other hand, the hypnotically amnesiac person can be tricked to relocate by association the words they can’t remember. The words can be drawn out of them, but they still won’t know they ever learned them
The forgotten words will appear with much greater frequency than similar words that were not memorized and forgotten. The unrecollected memorized words will be the first words they’ll pick in a test of word associations, although they have no explanation of why these words are so prominent as they have no recollection of memorizing them.
Even when the hypnotized person has unconsciously agreed not remember, their associative memory “leaks in.” This shows that our associative and our direct memory functions are distinct, there are different paths to the same recollections. Just as we don’t know how we remember, we don’t know how we forget.
Trauma and significance
Nothing is remembered accurately and the most consequential things are remembered the most inaccurately. That’s because what’s consequential is not what’s factual. We judge accuracy on the basis of fact, but we remember on the basis of impact.
If you’ve had an upsetting experience, then what you’ll remember is what’s upsetting, not the facts of the experience. This is obviously much more useful. For example, the fear of a stranger pointing a gun at you may be easy to substantiate, but the fear of walking in the dark through a bad part of town is much more useful.
I have a distinct memory of a spanking I received from my father as the conclusion of my many efforts to piss my parents off. I remember flying in the air, a sense of the darkness in the room. My father pointlessly carrying out his directive indifferent to my mother, who fussed and fretted on the sidelines. I have no memory of trauma, and no recollection of what it was about.
I doubt this memory is accurate. My parents were probably present and may have behaved as I remember, but what’s important is how I remember it, not what actually happened. The memory is a flash recording of ineffectual parenting that was easily recalled and needed no explanation.
I have clients who semi-remember traumatic events. I don’t know if their memories are accurate, whether they would benefit from remembering more, or remembering more accurately. The memory could be a condensation of many events or feelings that provides a summary and direction. Or their importance could lie more deeply in the details that have been forgotten.
“Regression is first and foremost a product of the imagination, and any accurate memory produced is likely to be blended with a great deal of false recall.”
— John F. Kihlstrom (1995)
egression extends into the past the rational process of understanding the circumstances. It’s presented as a way to better recall, but it’s really a method for reaching better conclusions.
Regression is enhanced by hypnosis because we are otherwise stuck in our rational minds. Our rational minds are ineffective on two fronts. First, we don’t remember enough details, if we ever knew them in the first place. And second, human behavior isn’t reasonable. We need to use our imagination.
I don’t presume you need to dissociate to find new ideas. Each person is comfortable with their own level of creativity and permission to go there. If you’re deeply attached to your story, causing deep confusion probably won’t be helpful.
Creativity in memory is helpful; your best ideas are probably out of reach. This is the whole purpose of counseling and coaching. It’s what I feel is lacking in approaching problems too rationally. You need a space to think crazy thoughts without need to justify or explain yourself. Helping people build this space is what I do. Calling this therapy, counseling, or coaching seems entirely misleading. There is no formula; it’s your reality.
“Hypnosis may in the future provide a means to restructure personal identity by reshaping memories… to create a network of pseudo-memories to shape a positive and functional self-identity… [that exists] between mood and autobiographical memory.”
— Mazzoni, Laurence, & Heap (2014)
If you have insights into memory you’d like to explore, write me at LS@mindstrengthbalance.com, or call me. 30-minute calls are free. My phone number is 250-885-8677.
Kihlstrom, J. F. (1995 Dec 1). Hypnosis, Memory, and Amnesia. Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 134 (1–2): 6. https://doi.org/:10.1016/0022-510X(96)80087-6 Retrieved from:
Mazzoni, G., Laurence, J., & Heap, M. (2014 Jan). Hypnosis and memory: Two hundred years of adventures and still going! Psychology Of Consciousness: Theory, Research, And Practice, 1 (2): 153-167. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cns0000016153
Tulving, E. (2005) Episodic Memory and Autonoesis: Uniquely Human? In: Terrace, H.S. and Metcalfe, J., Eds., The Missing Link in Cognition: Self-Knowing Consciousness in Man and Animals, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 3-56.
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