There are few mental delights more nourishing, more satisfying, than the recollection of something that before remained elusive. One need only experience the pain of forgetting a gorgeous word, an author’s name, a catch-all phrase, to be reminded of how delicately our brain files, dates, and stores our memories, and how quickly those files can fall prey to tempestuous dust.

Our cauliflower-sized brains come with a limited data plan and sometimes even the best-kept memories are soon forgotten. While there’s a variety of reasons that account for memory loss- age, trauma, sleep deprivation, any cohabitation of illicit substances– we wanted to know: once it’s left, why does a memory even bother coming back? Why do you remember something you once forgot? And what do you do if that memory isn't exactly pleasant? We talked to a memory researcher, a memory authlete, a psychologist and psychotherapist specializing in trauma and focusing.



Nicole Spector

Research Assistant at The Davachi Memory Lab, NYU

In my lab, we studied memory based on these theories: All of our experiences are processed in some capacity by our brains, but only some of them are stored (encoded) as neural representations of the actual events to become memories. These stored representations are strengthened in a process called consolidation which often happens during periods of resting or sleep. Remembering happens during retrieval, when our brains are able to recreate the neural activity that occurred during encoding. Forgetting is usually caused by an error in retrieval and can be affected by emotions or stress. When one remembers something that was once forgotten, that initial activity is recreated successfully.

Four distinct memory processes

memory encoding: a biological event that spins experiences into memorable moments

memory consolidation: the process of stabilizing that memorable moment into a memory

memory storage: retention of the memory

memory recall: remembering that memory



Daniel Kilov

Mnemonist and Memory Athlete

In my journey as a memory athlete, I've discovered that we all have better memories than we think we do. We just don't know how to use them properly!

Often, the reason we remember things we once forgot is because we didn't really forget them at all. Rather, we forgot how to access those memories.

Association is the language of memory; it's when we spot something that triggers an association with, or a connection to a 'forgotten' memory that we unearth.




Lawrence Patihis, P.H.D.

Incoming Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology for the University of Southern Mississippi

We remember things we had forgotten due to reminder cues. Cued recognition is typically much better than free recall in memory research. These reminder cues can be exterior, for example looking at old documents or photos, or interior whereby thought processes lead from one topic to another associated topic until the associative network links into long forgotten events. This is subjectively experienced as a recovered memory, although strictly speaking you never really lost the memory and in the intervening years it was accessible—it is more that you didn't think about it for a while, or that you did not encounter any associated cues for a while.

Recently, researchers at Emory University asked parents to chat with their three-year-old children about recent life events. Years later, they asked the children to recall these events. Researchers found that kids who were now six or seven remembered up to 72 percent of the memories collected at age three, but eight- and nine-year-olds could only dregde up half that amount. 




Jill Edelstein LCSW

Focusing-oriented psychotherapist trained in EMDR therapy, has served as a clinical affiliate of National Institute for the Psychotherapies' Integrative Trauma Treatment Program (ITP), currently studying Relational Self-Psychology


"Remembering" assumes that something had, at some point, been known/experienced. People want to remember something because it makes them feel good to revisit a particular (positive) moment. This is a good practice. Playing a memory again makes the groove deeper, stronger and more accessible.

In trauma, it can be encountering something that was never experienced, fully or at all, in the first place. There is an urge to put together a moment in time that silently shattered inside us when the thing originally happened because we didn't have the capacity to digest it in our waking life or during sleep. You could say that on some level the thing was never actually "known." A lot of work in therapy work is to know and experience these things from the client's position in the present. 

I work under the assumption that there is an innate urge to move towards wholeness and healing (though not in a linear fashion). To be enveloped—even if only for a moment—in the primordial ocean of consciousness people talk about experiencing in (some kinds of) meditation, psychedelic adventures, orgasm. So this force—Eros? Thanatos?—might be calling the shattered bits out from where they are lodged so they can be “known.” The "good" feeling here is a clicking into place, a relief, a "Yes, that's it," a full and multi-dimensional experience of Self in relation to the past, the present, others, the world.

Pulling those shards out usually means encountering unpleasant images, emotions, body sensations, and cognitions. Re-playing unpleasant memories or pointers to memories by yourself or with someone else, including a therapist, won't necessarily pull them out and put them together in a safe and meaningful way so don't try this at home. 

Memory and the brain

Memory begins about 20 weeks after conception.

A recent study showed a walk in nature can improve memory recall up to 20%.

Most phone numbers are only seven digits long because that’s the max capacity of numbers our brains can store for use by our short term memory.

Experts believe that you can hold approximately seven items in short-term memory for about 20 to 30 seconds. This capacity can be stretched somewhat by using memory strategies such as chunking, which involves grouping related information into smaller "chunks."

The hippocampus is associated with memory, in particular long-term memory. The organ also plays an important role in spatial navigation. Functioning of the hippocampus declines with age. By the time people reach their 80s, they may have lost as much as 20 percent of the nerve connections in the hippocampus. While not all older adults exhibit this neuron loss, those who do show decreased performance on memory tests.



Contrary to what many psychoanalytic ancestors believed, I don't see memory as a thing or a place even though there are established themes. It isn’t a topography, a Stonehenge of a place where things are static and that’s how they are each time we return. Rather, the moments are new, fresh takes on an old theme.

A powerful psychotherapy technology that plays on the memory networks (and nervous system) is EMDR (eye movement desensitization reprocessing). For me, it is a kind of holy time travel. It is a choreographed, highly creative and integrateable protocol for making, as Eugene Gendlin would say, the "New Was." In EMDR therapy, we are not seeking out memories. Our goal is to reduce or ideally, ameliorate, real-time symptoms and signs of depression and anxiety. Those are clues that something needs to be known, some remote part wants to speak. So here, remembering is medicinal and allows the client to bring forward properly processed and filed past experiences. This way they can love and work without interference from a demanding, distorting, undermining, buried event that keeps them stuck in the past because it thinks it's still happening. (It isn't).

Also: there has to be an animal dimension. We remember because we needed to keep track of where the water was? Where the edible plants were? Where the animals are most dangerous? Where we left our offspring? 


“Forget” could be shorthand for hiddenness, or something so far away it isn’t perceptible. A “forgetter" is a protector part that is obscuring/hiding/pushing away a moment in time for a good reason. Perhaps the client isn’t put together enough, strong enough, to encounter that piece of time and all the feelings and body sensations it brings forth, for whatever reason. In this way, forgetting is adaptive even though it can be scary, inconvenient, or annoying.

A cycle healthy cycle

Our capacity to remember and forget is a wonderful feature that allows us to continually make a self, pass through difficult moments, maintain relationships and create art, among other things.




Illustration: Sergii Rodionov Additional Sources: Human Memory, Scientific American