Like Hansel’s Pebbles

hanesel pebbles

I was drifting, floating quietly in the time between sleep and not-sleep, coasting lightly on theta brain waves, when I had an insight into the fabric of memory. I muttered something to myself, and then embraced Mr. Sandman fully. In the morning, all I could remember of my insight were the words I had muttered: “Like Hansel’s pebbles”. I am sure you are ALL familiar with the Grimm fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. If you are not, I would urge you to read it here. For those of you who couldn’t be bothered, suffice it to say that when Hansel and Gretel were lured into the forest to die, Hansel got them home safe and sound the first time by dropping shiny pebbles, by which they found their way home later, with the help of the bright moonlight. The second time, however, Hansel was prevented from collecting the pebbles, so dropped breadcrumbs instead. Unfortunately, the birds found them first and the children were lost in the forest. So, for some reason, I had compared something about the essence of memory to Hansel’s pebbles. Not knowing really what that had been (oh the the irony), I decided to dig a little deeper in general. Memory and I have always had a rich and complex relationship. I have an excellent memory, that reaches far back into my first few years, and encompasses details both small and large. This ability has made me both happy and unhappy in equal degrees. My memory has been often mocked, challenged, and disbelieved, but it is what it is.

If you check for the definition of memory, you get the following from the Oxford English Dictionary:

 II. Senses relating to the faculty of recalling to mind.

 a. The faculty by which things are remembered; the capacity for retaining, perpetuating, or reviving the thought of things past.

and from Wikipedia, in psychology:

memory is the process in which information is encoded, stored, and retrieved.

So, in one sense, we talk about memory as in: “I remember….” With a slightly larger scope, we have a journey from the senses, through to being shelved and catalogued in our memory library, to a recall demand of: “Ah yes, here it is…” Here, I am not interested in discussing the many ways in which memory can go wrong, through neurological damage or disease, or how different people have varying abilities and scopes in their memory abilities. I am only interested in what our memory is to us, and the scope to which the word “memory” truly applies; from the factual, to the emotional and creative aspects of our lives. Recently, the issue of memory and remembering popped up several times on websites.

The first article that caught my eye was a nicely engaging piece by Wired’s Nick Stockton, entitled: “What’s Up With That:  Your Best Thinking Seems to Happen in the Shower.” The scene is set by the title: while we’re lathering up and rinsing off stress and worry, unusually “great” ideas pop into our head. Possibly a solution based idea, or maybe just one of those really delicious ideas. It’s not only showers either, it’s any aimless yet engaging activity we can immerse ourselves in for a while. Psychology has a theory for this particular mental state, called the default mode network.

In a directly connected article over at Lifehacker, Alan Henry calls this a semi-meditative state. This is accurate and well put when you think of your thought-feelings while in this state of calm contentment. John Kounios, a psychologist who studies creativity and distraction at Drexel University in Philadelphia, says:

“You become less aware of your environment and more aware of your internal thoughts.”  This part is important, because we aren’t aware of it.

When we focus too much on a problem, we tend to stick to only a few strategies, and beat them to death, repeatedly. When we’re relaxed and distracted, on the other hand, our ideas socialise with each other more, free from the parameters we usually tether them to.  It is during this social mingling that the above type of ideas come into being.  This is called fixation forgetting.  To go a little further, we’re most creative when we’re not only relaxed; in an alpha brain wave state, but also in a positive mood. We are at our most brilliant when we’ve had a nice burst of dopamine. We can choose to increase the likelihood of these ideas, by taking breaks from our work during the days, and doing something that will distract and soothe us. This could be as simple as a walk, a bit of gardening, or the above mentioned shower.

This all leads to the first article of interest I read, from Gregory Ciotti and the Sparring Mind. Before we knew about things like the default mode network and fixation forgetting, it seems that some of the greatest creative minds knew intuitively how to maximise their creativity. Beethoven’s favourite method for inspiration was to take long walks through the woods around Vienna. He was in good company, for both Mahler and Britten took a similar approach to composing. All three however, made certain that these walks were breaks from work. In other words, they started their day in a focused work state, and then relaxed it to progress further. Harvard psychologist, Dr. Shelley Carson, refers to these states as the absorb state and the synthesis state.

“Put another way, the absorb state is when you are open (playful thinking) to new ideas, and the synthesis state is when you are closed (logical thinking) in order to execute.”

The one negative aspect about these thoughts is that they tend to dissipate very quickly if not transferred to a more durable medium; by pen to paper, for example. The suggestions from the articles are quite simple: a small notepad out of sight, a voice recorder, or a waterproof notepad. The lesson to be learned overall here is don’t force it, let it come to you by a more circuitous route.

But what have Hansel’s pebbles got to do with any of this? The pebbles were enduring and bright, and helped Hansel find his way in the darkness of night. Surely memories, like the thoughts above, are more like his breadcrumbs, falling prey to age, sleep, life problems and so on. As I have written about elsewhere, memory is, for me, closely related to emotion. I suffer from bouts of nostalgia. Not just for people, but also for sounds, smells, and textures. Although I try my best to live in the present, that oh so fleeting friend, I find that many things in the present evoke the past. They often draw so close to each other, the past and present, and even a projected future, that I am left not knowing which is which or when is now.

Perhaps, on the other hand, all of memory is like being in a forest. Some of the walks, paths and trees are familiar, and we find our way around and through with ease. At other times, however, we are somewhat lost in the very depth of the wildwood, and need beacons to guide us safely through. If we remember Hansel’s pebbles, it was more than just being pebbles that made them a suitable guide, it was also the fact that they shone in the moonlight.

So if pebbles are our memories, we only need to know where to look to find them, but we also need another force to light them for us. If this is the case, then what can we say that the moonlight represents? In other words, how do I remember memories?

First and foremost, our memories are triggered by the senses. A simple smell or sound can take us straight back to childhood, a forgotten sight can evoke a time of first love. Other physical sensations originating from the senses, like pain, can also bring about the memory of an event. Secondly, memories beget memories. Like a chain of dominoes, remembering one thing can lead to a string of other recollections. Experiences like this are often like brief daydreams, where we journey along in our mind, until usually some external stimulus breaks the train of thoughts. Lastly, I think that emotions can shine a light on our memories. I often find that a certain state of emotion can give rise to a surge of memories related to the state, rather than remaining confined to the particular moment in time. For example, if something I see triggers sadness and a sad memory, I sometimes end up bombarded by a stream of sorrowful memories, directly related to the fact that I am now sad. The original trigger is now merely part of a greater whole. This is typical of moods. If someone is in a “bad mood”, it is most likely that although something started their bad mood, they are now in an emotional state, which is most likely filled with other memories contributing to the state.

Memories are powerful and mysterious. They can bring us great joy, and also cause us great damage. They are fallible, subject to change, disappearance and inflation. It is a subject that I find fascinating, and would welcome any other observations or personal opinions.











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