Sunday, July 4, 2021

Memory Trick #2

A few months ago, I posted Memory Trick #1, a method for adding new slots to your brain’s memory via a reframing trick (I also posted this followup explaining how to add still more extra slots).

The following works the other end of the equation: remembering things you’ve forgotten. Prerequisite is faith that everything’s recoverable. It's true. I can affirm, after using this technique for years, that remembering is always possible. It doesn't always work quickly, but it never fails.

Like many topics here on the Slog, it's a stupendously simple matter, but so counterintuitive that I must go to some length to explain. If the following is more conceptual than you can stand, cut to the bottom section for an easy shortcut that delivers immediate remembering improvement.

The Remembering Process

Most people are extremely bad at retrieving forgotten information because successful remembering requires going against instinct. If you can control your reaction to forgetting, you'll greatly ease the process of remembering. 

I remember reading an article mentioning an aboriginal group in Japan which still has a few surviving members. And there was lots more interesting stuff, which I made a mental note to read up on sometime. The note just flashed back to me...but I couldn't remember any details. I was stuck!

Web searching might yield further information on the aborigines, but not the article that had piqued my curiosity. So I needed to power through remembering unassisted by the Google machine.

Let’s replay this minor crisis in slow motion. My mind was operating normally, fluidly passing from thought to thought in a more or less straight line (with some digression and haziness). A particularly strong thought - “I must read up on aborigines in Japan!” - flashed, and was followed by....nothing. A sheer cliff, leaving my train of thought trackless.

My mind tried stubbornly to plow ahead, backing up repeatedly to the thought ("aborigines in Japan") and then trying to push forward, like spinning the wheels of a car stuck in snow. Nothing!

At such an impasse, there are three options:

1. Blunt force
Back up and go forward again and again in a helpless loop, hoping the missing data magically appears. Bash your face, again and again, against the dead end. This is a very popular move.

2. Think something...anything!
Emotions arise, steering the mind into a new (but unhelpful) train of thought. We cue up the familiar "GOD DAMN IT I CAN'T REMEMBER!" script, which at least provides a sense of forward momentum, leaving us more comfortable than we were hovering at the edge of blankness. I can't remember the thing I forgot, but at least I'm doing stuff! I'm complaining and stressing over the fact that I forgot! We scowl, tighten up, slap our foreheads, and make a dramatic display that does absolutely nothing to help us remember. In fact, it's hard to imagine a better way to push away the forgotten chunk.

#1 and #2 are full of stress. Why do we behave that way? First, it’s what people on TV and in movies do when they can’t remember. Second, anything beats standing around like some goof with mouth stupidly agape and no thoughts forthcoming. You've reestablished dynamic forward momentum, regaining the impression of control by bashing away (#1) or by turning it into a drama (#2).

3. Abide in the Brain Fart
Nobody does this, though it's the only move that actually works: Relax into the blankness. Rather than repeatedly try to ram through, per #1, or conjure up emotional tizzy, per #2, the gap is accepted (what choice is there, really?) and you begin to gently probe and nibble at its edges.

Choosing #3, I sit back in my chair, choosing not to furrow my brow or tense up or curse the gods. I don't make the slightest attempt to pry loose the memory. Rather than demand that the missing information present itself, I gingerly explore the gap. My attitude is relaxed, playful, curious.

First, I dip my toe into the part I did remember, re-experiencing the surprise and curiosity I'd felt upon learning that aborigine culture still exists in Japan. Cool! Without grasping, I continued to brood lazily/dreamily about where such culture might be situated...certainly not in the more populous central zones. would have to be at the northern or southern tip. Southern tip immediately rings a bell for me. But I remain comfortably poised in the vacuum - the not-remembering - resisting the urge to tug at dangling strings.

I picture the south of Japan, and since this isn't a place I often visualize, the same vague mental image arose that had arisen while reading that article. Lots of water all around...someone rowing to Southern Japan and being met by aborigines...all in the past, back when that group was more intact. I settle into a lazy, expansive revery about rowing through the Southern Japan.....a long time ago. Shipwreck. Adventurers. Sneaking into Japan. Aha! I remember! It was an article about how the West tried to penetrate the insular nation at the end of the Shogun age. I suddenly re-experienced the same curiosity to read up on the subject. Deja vu means you're close!

The remembering has gained momentum, so it’s particularly important to restrain my mind's eagerness to reach for the prize. A mind derailed is a delicate thing, and unless the knot is fully untied in a state of mental relaxation (i.e. "abiding in the brain fart"), it will only tighten further. I sense, without forcing the issue, that the name of the publication would elude me if I directly seek it out.

So I sit back again, loftily immersing in the flavor, the smell, the feeling of an adventurer sneaking into Southern Japan via rowboat, claiming to be a shipwreck victim. I paddle oh-so-lightly around the hazy coastline of my memory. With great patience (constantly soothing my eager mind with the assurance that there's no hurry), I passively collect more fragments as they appear: the Shogun's hard-line prohibition of contact with foreigners; the strong currents transporting hapless Japanese mariners all the way to the North American west coast, laws requiring boat builders to intentionally cripple ships in order to prevent citizens from wandering off to other lands...

In a flash, it all spills from beyond the veil: I’d read about this in The Economist. At this point, the article was a snap to find.

Let it Go to Get it Back

The moment you become aware of an impending derailment - that a memory is about to elude your grasp - just relax into it. It's counterintuitive, like learning to steer into a skid. Get in the habit of loosening up, slowing down, and resisting the impulse to bash through via endless rewinding/fast-forwarding. Pause, amiably, in the fuzzy zone. Exist in the vacuum. As your mental train of thought stalls, begin to languidly paddle around the shadowy ambiguity, starting with whichever detached shards are available.

And keep your emotions out of it. Anger, exasperation, stress, and helplessness prevent remembering. Remain calmly aloof as you probe the edges of the gap. Have faith that the knot will unwind under the sustained light of patient curiosity. Don't expect a flash; invite one by letting it appear whenever it will. Loosen the deadline, but don't look away. Don't check your email or think about lunch. Hover weightlessly within the bubble. Remain non-insistently curious.

The sharp emotions aren’t really about memory frustration. The level of consternation is normally far out of proportion with the value of the forgotten data. How many times have you waited while an older relative painfully struggled to recover some absolutely insignificant dab of useless trivia? They're upset not about the missing information but about the gap in their mental narrative.

The brain's spigot normally gushes effortlessly. Information simply arrives. When it doesn't, deep-seated issues of control and identity arise from the subconscious. If my thoughts stop, where does that leave me? A curtain has pulled back to reveal my impermanence!
But that's wrong. You're not your thought stream. You're not the data, or the memories, or the words or deeds. You are pure subjectivity. As thoughts pause, you're the awareness that notices. By noticing, you’ve demonstrated your existence. Rocks never notice that they’re not thinking!

Since people are terribly confused about who they actually are, these gaps freak them out.
This explains the counterproductive impulses. Feeling as if we've crash-landed in an eerie silent abyss of non-existence, we flail for a sense of control, trying to reboot our mental continuity like a smoker frantically flicking her empty lighter. We’re engaged not in data recovery but in a struggle to restart the ticker tape of mental narration that establishes our sense of continuity.

Since we falsely think that we are this narration, the struggle feels existential! This is why people won't easily abandon the chase, even for garbage information. Losing continuity leaves you nowhere. A scary place.

Unless, that is, you blithely relax into it. Our thought stream is something we do, not what we are. We can easily abide in the pause. Mystics spend their lives trying to quiet their minds to experience pure awareness...and you've just had a free pass! (I'm not being glib. Brain farts - senior moments, et al - are identical to mystical states. We have only to relax into them.)

Focusing on Forgetting

Emotions reengage our sense of continuity. We flail, and the flailing becomes the new momentum. I'm no longer lapsed; my mind’s back in gear, grousing about how annoying it is to forget! I'm back, baby! I'm me!

You can opt out of all that. Don't flail. It won't help you remember. On the contrary, it buries the evidence, because what you're searching for lives in the gap you’re fleeing from! Relax into the gap, opt out of struggle, and remembering will be strangely easy.

On-the-Fly Forgetfulness

You'll be amazed at what you're able to recall. There is literally no limit to how far you can take this. No detail will escape your memory if you're able to fully relax into the gap, setting no deadline.

The only problem is that it takes time, and you can't zone out of a conversation to bask in the psychic gap. When trying to remember under inescapable time pressure, options are slim. You can make the standard brain fart jokes, or shrug, or steer the conversation elsewhere. But even under pressure, the way you react makes a critical difference. Your body will sense the gap before your mind does. Learn to relax into the inevitable, rather than contract and harden against it. Resist the urge to frown and tense up. Your odds of graceful recovery improve dramatically when you embrace rather than recoil.

To be sure, a placid response to forgetting will make you look a little weird to others ("Why did he stop talking? Why does he look so relaxed about how he stopped talking?"), but you can adjust those parameters (looking normal vs increasing your odds of remembering) to suit specific situations. Maybe pretend to grimace a little, just for the sake of social signaling.

Pity the Artists

Artists have a better feel for this. The creation of a symphony, novel or painting involves a multitude of mental stalls as you try to materialize the next note, brushstroke, or sentence. Sometimes that chunk arrives, but often it doesn't, and you must keep backing up and trying again.

Artists learn to expect dry spigots, and to proceed gently, never forcing. They become intimately familiar with dead ends, and take them in stride. In fact, they had no illusions about controlling the process to begin with. Truly creative people find gaps exhilarating, because they’re the very wellspring of creativity (we all know what happened the moment after the earth was without form and void). A tight vacuum sucks in inspiration...if we allow it.

But even artists grow weary when a certain chunk keeps defying their grasp. So if you’re exasperated about having forgotten some trivia, consider the plight of artists, who spend their professional lives in that fuzzy realm.

Remember Like a Dream

Here's a cool shortcut.

Failing to recall a fact - a name, a date, a word - we instinctively strain and bash against the block. But when people try to recall a dream, they go about it very differently. They get a faraway look in their eyes and slip away a little, almost as if falling lightly asleep. We recreate a hazy dream state to access dream information. No one ever flails in frustration to remember a dream. We don't force or rush the remembering. We relax into it! We do it the right way!

(Why? Because there’s no interruption involved. And since we don’t actually mind the forgetting - it’s the interruption that freaks us out - we apply a more effective, more relaxed approach to dream recollection.)

So do that! Frame a forgotten chunk as having occurred in a dream. And then do what you naturally do to remember dreams.

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