How to Recall Old Memories

Memory is the ability to recollect ideas or experiences learned or experienced in the past. The inability to do this, otherwise known as forgetting happens to all of us. It could be to do with recent details such as where you put your car keys last evening, details of your childhood and everything in-between.

To better understand how to recall old memories, it is useful to take time to understand the processes of human memory.

Processes of Memory

The human brain’s ability to recall details is based on 3 main processes.

Memory encoding

This is the first step in memory creation. Here the perceived idea, person or experience of interest is converted into a construct which is then stored in the brain.

This process is comparable to writing down details such as a phone number or address on a piece of paper.

Memory storage.

This is a somewhat passive process in which your brain retains the encoded information and stores it in the sensory memory, short term memory or long term memory. Taking the comparison mentioned above, storage is comparable to filling the piece of paper (on which you wrote an important phone number or address) in a physical file and putting it away on a shelf.

Memory Retrieval

This is an active process of bringing to the fore of your mind the ideas and experiences stored in the past. The past could be anything from a few minutes before to tens of years ago.

Going back to our comparison, memory retrieval is comparable to searching through your shelves and pulling out the specific file containing the information you need and opening it to reveal the phone number or address you wrote down.

The process of memory consolidation has to do with stabilizing a trace path to a memory after the information is acquired. Some experts consider it to be part of encoding, others consider it as part of storage. A third group opine that it is a memory process in its own right.

Theories Explaining Why We Forget

Still in the quest for an answer to the question of how to recall old memories, let’s take a look at why we forget. Why is it that certain bits of information appear to have been deleted from our minds? Several memory researchers, including renowned researcher Elizabeth Loftus have put forward many theories to explain forgetting. These are a few of them.

Retrieval failure

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Failure to retrieve memories is linked to what researchers call decay theory. According to this theory, a new trace is created in your mind every time a new memory is created. Take the example of a phone number or address filed and put away in your mind.

Assuming you write, file and put away hundreds of files over a few years. Your mind automatically classifies the files on shelves for better retrieval. Files with addresses of family members are on one shelf and those containing information for friends on another. Those containing information for work colleagues are placed on yet another shelf.

Decay theory suggests that you may be unable to retrieve information because you haven’t had to retrieve it in a long time and your mind can’t trace exactly which shelf the file required was placed on. Did I put it on the friends or colleagues shelf? The theory suggests that memory traces may begin to fade over time if the trace is not rehearsed or repeated often.

Cue-dependent theory

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Some researchers suggest that in many instances, information or memories are actually present in your mind but cannot be recalled unless prompted by the presence of retrieval cues. These refer to presence of elements which were present at the time the information was encoded.

For instance many people remember a lot more about their childhood when they visit the elementary school they attended so many years ago. A woman may remember details of her first date with her husband when she smells the scent of the cologne he was wearing that evening.

Motivated Forgetting

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Motivated forgetting is common in the case of painful or traumatic experiences. It could be conscious or unconscious. You may make a conscious effort to forget a painful experience in your past and actually forget it. This is known as memory suppression. It could also happen subconsciously, as happens in children after traumatic experiences. This is known as memory repression.

How to Recall Old Memories

Now we have an understanding of how information is recorded in our minds and how it can sometimes be difficult to retrieve it.  Are there ways to help your mind retrieve certain memories? Yes. You can provide your brain with necessary cues and in the case of motivated forgetting, hypnosis works wonders.

Using cues to recall old memories

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Cued recall is a process used in research to establish the effects of associated cues in memory retrieval. In this process a person is given a list items to memorize. They are then tested and the testing involves giving cues to aid in memory retrieval. It has been found that individuals are able to recall a lot more when cues are given than when none are provided.

Similarly, use of cues can help you recall information buried deep in your mind. If you want to recall more details of your childhood for instance, visit the house you grew up in, walk around the neighborhood and you will be surprised how much crops into your mind.

Look through old photographs or watch videos of family trips and so much more information than is in the pictures will come back to your mind. Even listening to an old song you danced to as a child brings back lots of other memories.

Hypnosis to recall old memories

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Hypnosis works best in the case of motivated forgetting. Many people struggle to remember traumatic events in their lives but just can’t. Some people have incomplete memories which they struggle to reconstruct as adults. There are women who even in adulthood, still wonder about the possibility of being sexually abused as children but cannot recall details.

Being unable to recall such details can be quite frustrating. This is how hypnosis helps. Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness. In this state, memories, even repressed ones can be accessed.

How does reconstructing painful, repressed memories help?

You may wonder if it may be better to let repressed memories remain as such. After all they will only cause the individual more pain. It has been found to be extremely helpful in overcoming post-traumatic stress disorder and giving individuals a feeling of control in dealing with difficult questions such as self-blame.


Human memory is a fascinating concept. Information is encoded and stored securely awaiting a time when it shall be retrieved in what we call recall or remembering. Sometimes this doesn’t happen as it should.  We forget both trivial details and painful experiences.

There are many theories attempting to explain why it may sometimes be difficult to retrieve forgotten information. One of the most effective ways to recall memories is using cues which your mind automatically associates with the information to be retrieved.

Another less conventional way is through hypnosis which is useful in digging up deliberately hidden information from the depths of your mind.