Why did I only remember this now?

Have you ever had an obscure memory bubble up in your mind seemingly out of nowhere? Some little detail that you didn’t give thought to at the time, but for some reason it has resurfaced and taken root in your head. Suddenly you’re obsessed with figuring out why this memory has come back so vividly and why you never thought about it before.

That little event, feeling, memory, sensation etc is like a tiny seed blown between the cracks of some pavement. You don’t even see it at first but after some time, rain and sunshine, suddenly it springs up and you’re surprised to see it. What you didn’t notice now has a face so to speak. Long before you could see it, it had taken root and was growing beneath the surface.

I was thinking about this as I was studying for my psychology exam and working through the chapter on memory. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after reading about this phenomenon, I began to notice it happen to me relatively frequently. Put simply, there are some things we remember even when we don’t try to – this is automatic processing. You probably haven’t ever thought very much about what a coin looks like or tried to commit the precise image to memory, but if I asked you, you could picture a coin in your mind very easily. But when near-forgotten memories resurface for seemingly no reason, I can assure you there probably is some reason. It can be triggered by your internal or external environment or actions. It’s a result of retrieving a memory as a result of the situation. This is where people can develop difficulty trusting others but not understand why.

A lot of people may have trust or intimacy issues with another person because of past experience that they don’t realise is still affecting them. When we get emotionally engaged and feelings are heightened or intensified– angry, excited, jealous etc – systems kick in that make us feel all fired up. That’s because our brain has learnt from experience that when certain situations arise, that emotion is the correct response. Humans repeat patterns of behaviour when presented with the same stimulus.

Maybe a person doesn’t like being complimented but can’t explain why. The just find that whenever someone compliments them, they feel uncomfortable or upset. One day, something may spark in their head if they are complimented and remind them of a time that a previous loved one complimented them and then showed through their actions that they didn’t mean it. Earlier, they couldn’t pinpoint this past experience as the reason for disliking compliments, but that doesn’t mean that earlier the occasion hadn’t influenced them. It just meant at this point in time, the right cues and triggers were laid out for them to remember this experience. In other words, there was some reason that this memory came back. There was the compliment yes, but the situation allowed the mind to follow a path to the memory, following figurative breadcrumbs along the way. Maybe they were both hot days or happened at the same location doing similar activities.

Everyone has unconscious or implicit ideas and memories in their head that influence their actions and feelings. They stay rooted in your mind and you often don’t see them until the right conditions come along. Like a seed, they grow beneath the surface waiting for rain and sun to suddenly spring up from the cracks demanding attention.

By the way, this isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes pleasant flowers and plants will appear and add some colour and joy to your pavement. But they can also be tough, thorny weeds which need to be removed before they spread and wreak havoc on your smooth, even surface. Mindfulness and time without engagement are some of the best times, I feel, to find these unexpected growths. I encourage you to try it out. Spend some time allowing your mind to drift and wander and take note of what memories arise as cues come and go. If you become aware of fears, preferences, insecurities, try to trace them back to where you first felt those things. It can provide very valuable insight into how your past has shaped you and if you want to allow this to continue.

Stay safe,

keyboardphilosopher

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