All Alone in the Moonlight – Thoughts on Memory

Please note – this post is not an attempt to persuade people into believing in reincarnation.  The post takes reincarnation as a given and moves on from there to answer the question below.

“A man breaking his journey between one place and another… sees a unicorn cross his path and disappear.  That in itself is startling, but there are precedents for mystical encounters of various kinds, or to be less extreme, a choice of persuasions to put it down to fancy; until – “My God,” says a second man, “I must be dreaming, I thought I saw a unicorn.”  At which point, a dimension is added that makes the experience as alarming as it will ever be.  A third witness… adds no further dimension but only spreads it thinner…the more witnesses there are the thinner it gets and the more reasonable it becomes until it is as thin as reality, the name we give to the common experience… “Look, look!” recites the crowd, “A horse with an arrow in it’s forehead!  It must have been mistaken for a deer.” – Guildenstern, from Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard


If we truly have lived before – why don’t we remember our past lives?

A natural question that arises when contemplating reincarnation is why we don’t remember our past life experiences.  After all, it seems like it would be tremendously useful in our current life to refer back to pitfalls we’ve run into before or have a clear understanding of our ‘learning objectives’ for the current life.[1]  According to Michael Newton in his book Journey of Souls, “the true answers to the mystery of life after death remain locked behind a spiritual door for most people.  This is because we have built-in amnesia abour our soul identity which, on a conscious level, aids in the merging of the soul and human brain.”[2]   Newton’s subjects themselves opine on this question while under hypnosis, “[Dr N:] Why do you think you had no conscious memory about your life as Ross Feldon? [Subject:] …If people knew all about their past many might pay too much attention to it rather than trying out new approaches to the same problem.  The new life must be… taken seriously.”[3]  As compelling as this reasoning is, real-life experience suggests that it isn’t really true.  Newton himself acknowledges that there are “back door” ways to get at this information (ostensibly via hypnosis treatment with a trained past life regressionist).  Even without that “back door” way, however, many – maybe even most – people have mental brushes with their past lives – they just don’t always recognize them at the time (or ever).  In his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung mentions, “…a curious experience…an ancient green carriage from the Black Forest drove past our house one day… When I saw it, I felt with great excitement: ‘That’s it!  Sure enough, that comes from MY times.’ It was as though I had recognized it because it was the same type as the one I had driven in myself… I cannot describe what was happening in me or what it was that affected me so strongly: a longing, a nostalgia, or a recognition…”[4]  I speak of my own experience with this kind of recognition in the post Through the Looking Glass.  To better investigate the puzzle of our inconsistent and incomplete ability to access past life memories, I decided to venture into a little more academic territory and check out a textbook on the subject.[5]

Inputs and Outputs

What we think of as ‘memory’ really describes two basic interactions that are meaningful to our lives; getting stuff ‘in’ to our brain and getting stuff out again.  Although exploring the question of past life memories primarily refers to the ‘getting stuff out’ process, an important piece of this puzzle is understanding how ‘stuff’ (for example, our past life memories) gets stored in the first place.  There are two recognized ways in which we ‘get stuff in’ – intentionally and incidentally.  That is to say, we can try to memorize things, like a phone number or information for a test, or we can store sensory information somewhat accidentally.  Most of our autobiographical memory is stored incidentally.  Only very rarely do we find ourselves living through a particular episode and thinking, I want to remember this moment and then actively attempting to do so.  As a result of this, our mind often picks up a mix of perceptual[6] and semantic[7] information about a given experience and writes that into storage.  Since it is incidental, various details about the experience may be present or missing – the mind may key in on something distinct and store it perfectly, but some other details may be just “filled in” at the time of encoding[8] or retrieval[9].  If this is what our memory is doing in the current life, presumably it is also likely to be how our brains were operating in a past life when that was, once, our ‘current’ life.

With situations or experiences that are often repeated in life, as our brain takes in info for storage it appears to organize the sensory data into some sort of higher-order structure.  One type of higher-order structure is called a schema.  Folk tales, for example, “ have an underlying, invariant organization… a story schema or story grammar… A range of studies ..[show] that material that fits with relevant story schema structure is well recalled, while material that violates the schema is poorly recalled.”[10]  One example of how a schema functions might be that there are certain common elements of particular types of stories.  For example, common characters might be; the princess, the prince, the evil queen, etc.   Another way the brain may organize stored information is by means of a script.  A script is more concerned with sequencing of particular activities, and “codes information concerning stereotyped events , such as what happens when we visit a restaurant or a doctor’s office.”[11]  You might have a stored script, for example,  for using an ATM which features walking up to the device, inserting your card, punching in numbers on a keypad or touch screen , making various selections, and retrieving money from the receptacle.  The script enables your mind to store key elements of a particular experience (usually the distinct ones), but information that is more common across multiple experiences and less meaningful may not be stored for each individual event and instead rely on the underlying structure of a script or schema as scaffolding for recall.[12] [13]

Now that we’ve laid some groundwork on how our memories (presumably including our past life memories when they were our present life memories) are stored in the first place, we can explore why we don’t actively “remember” our past lives in our current life.  There is some background we should cover here, too, before we go further.  There are several concepts associated with “getting stuff out” of memory that are relevant to this discussion.  Encountering an external stimulus may result in what is termed access of content in the memory, “Access does not imply that the contacted material will be recalled.  The term retrieval is used for the actual event of recollection.”[14]  Access appears to be the earliest in a series of steps required to retrieve memory content.  Once material is accessed it may or may not be retrieved.  The process of retrieval is broken down into recall and recognition with recognition being considered the ‘easier’ task.  “Under standard conditions, recognition performance is always higher than recall.  Recall is higher under deliberate [intentional]learning conditions… while recognition is higher under incidental…”[15]  As noted earlier, storage of autobiographical events is much more likely to be incidental than intentional.  “Recall is defined as the ability to remember some past content when no corresponding stimulus is present”[16]  For example, most of us can recall our phone number or address without an external trigger to aid us.  The other incidence of retrieval, recognition, is broken down into the concepts of familiarity and recollection.  “Familiarity is involved when you encounter something and sense you have seen it before… The sense of familiarity can be either strong or weak with a range of strengths in between.”[17]  Recollection, on the other hand, “involves recalling the context in which some person or information was encountered in the past.”[18] With recollection the information is either readily available to the conscious mind or not, there is no range.  Howes reports that “Familiarity appears to be established more quickly than recollection and is believed to reflect an earlier stage of processing.”[19]  Familiarity seems to be the process most often involved when we experience a past life memory.  We encounter some stimulus (shoes, a car, a particular style of clothing) that triggers an emotional response deep within us, but we cannot ‘recollect’ why we have such a strong reaction.

Get a Cue

We experience familiarity and recollection with our current life memories when we come into contact with an external stimulus that serves as a ‘cue.’  Howes notes that, “Probably the most influential development in memory research across the past half century… involves the notion of cues”[20] and goes on to explain, “It is now understood that the nature of your thoughts, at the moment when you try to recall a given episode, can make a difference concerning your success or failure in recollection… that is, we may be unable to recall a given episode when certain ideas or perceptions are present in awareness, and yet recall that same episode when different ideas are present.”[21]  This seems to correspond with how most past life memories (ignoring hypnosis) are triggered in the current life.  A stimulus is present and the individual is somewhat overcome with feeling – which the current life brain may or may not be able to make sense of in the moment.  Carl Jung mentions ‘nostalgia’ when talking about the gig above and also relates that he, “..had still another experience that harked back to the eighteenth century.  At the home of one of my aunts I had seen an eighteenth-century statuette…This statuette…had buckled shoes which in a strange way I recognized as my own.  I was convinced that these were shoes I had worn.  The conviction drove me wild with excitement… I could still feel those shoes on my feet, and yet I could not explain where this crazy feeling came from.  I could not understand this identity I felt with the eighteenth century.  Often in those days I would write the date 1786 instead of 1886, and each time this happened I was overcome by an inexplicable nostalgia.”[22]  In my post Through the Looking Glass, I mention having a very similar experience with an old car of my uncle’s.  I could not use the word ‘nostalgia’ to describe those feelings because, at that age, I don’t even think I understood the concept of nostalgia.  Rather, I would say I felt an intense and unexplainable ‘liking’ for the car, perhaps even a type of ‘love at first sight’ and a desire to ride in it.  I couldn’t make sense of what I was feeling given the context of my life so far.  Even so, the sentimentality stuck with me for many days and weeks afterwards.  Unfortunately, with no context to support the experience and hardly any further experiences with the car[23] it eventually sunk below my conscious awareness until it was triggered again after my past life regression session when I was looking at an online picture of Kay standing next to “her” car.  My uncle’s car had been the cue in my youth for the feelings of familiarity based on the past life experience and later the picture of Kay with the car had cued the memory of my experience with the car in my youth.[24]

Why aren’t  we bumping into cues all the time?

If all it takes to trigger a past-life memory is a cue, why doesn’t it happen more often?  There are several reasons why this could be.  For one, very common stimuli (apples, for example) are unlikely to serve as cues, even in our current life.  If we live this time around in a place where apples are decidedly uncommon, the first time we see one it may trigger a feeling of familiarity based on a past life.  However, this is only likely to be noticeable if apples were associated with a significant event in, or somehow central to, that past lifetime.  Even if an apple did engender a feeling of familiarity in this lifetime, we were likely pre-verbal when it happened and had no way to communicate that.  By the time we were old enough to speak, apples would have become commonplace enough for us that they would have either cued memories from this lifetime or, more likely, nothing at all.  With increasing globalization it may seem like – even if our past lives were a world away – we should be running into cues all the time.  It is true that the increased accessibility of other places and cultures may be offering up more stimuli that have the potential to cue past life memories.  On the other hand, as times change, the signs, symbols, and objects we interacted with as part of a previous space in history are likely to be less present.  It’s rare to see cars that are 60, 50, or even  40 years old on the road today.  From what I understand of cues they have to be fairly specific  – especially for more remote memories.  Even if we were to visit a county where the most recent past life had been lived, we are very unlikely to casually come across something from that time period that was also significant to our past lives.

So why – even when we do chance upon a ‘cue’ (as in my first experience with the car) does it not trigger a clear past life narrative “memory” and instead just evokes a generic, if strong, feeling of familiarity?  To answer this question, we have to back up a bit and revisit how memories are likely to be stored in the first place.  Taking the reincarnation concept as a given (as I mentioned at the start that this post does), we recognize that we don’t carry everything with us from life to life.  If nothing else, our previous bodies are left behind as if we are shedding a snake skin or cocoon.  We should not minimize that part of that human body was also a brain.  Much like our eyes are the instrument through which we take in images, our brain processes events and information that come in from the senses.  It is logical to suppose that when we leave the brain behind – we also lose all the higher order structuring (such as schemas and scripts) that the brain constructed during that lifetime.  Some of this logic can be loosely corroborated by research into why we don’t remember memories from our early childhood or infancy.  “There is… clear evidence [from experimental data] that infants form recognition memories.”[25]  However, autobiographical memories of a narrative sort appear to only start cementing into our storage a few years later.  “Pillemer (1992) examined the memories of 3.5  and  4.5 year–old children concerning the evacuation of a preschool due to a possible fire hazard…  Fifty-four percent of the younger children claimed, incorrectly, that they had been outside when they heard the fire alarm.  They also showed a poor grasp of causality related to the event and temporal factors.  The older children performed better on all these measures.  The author interpreted these data as suggesting that the weak memory function of young children may be due, in part, to the absence of the relevant higher-order structuring abilities.”[26] If the author of this study’s interpretation is correct then it further bolsters the argument that cognitive organization that aids in recall is developed, with growth and experience, in the corporeal brain.  Therefore any past life memories that came into the new life with us would essentially just be ‘loose content.’  To give an example of what this would be like, imagine a library where there was no organization to how books were shelved ( no numbering system, related books not even shelved together) and no inventory system where you could look up whether the library had a particular book and where it was located.  How would you ever find anything?  Finding a book on the subject you were interested in would become an incredibly chance event – which is exactly what appears to happen with past life memories.  We stumble on an unexpected cue that triggers intense feelings of familiarity, nostalgia, or some other emotion for no explainable reason.

The above is only half the answer, however.  There is an aspect of memory that isn’t really discussed in Howes’ book but, from my own reflection, is another important reason why we have such difficulty ‘remembering’ past life memories.  This is the concept of memory reinforcement.  If you’ve lived a moderate length of time you have probably had the experience of ‘reconciling’ memories with someone else.  It goes something like this – Person A says, “Do you remember the time when…?” and the other person says “Oh yeah <thinking> , I remember, that was when we did ‘x’” and the other person either agrees and compounds the memory with additional details, or they may something like, “no, it wasn’t – it was when we did ‘y’ – don’t you remember? and you were wearing that <insert clothing detail>.” And so on.  Basically, the two (or more) people who have a shared experience are reconciling their memories of the event.  Even if they don’t agree on the details they are reinforcing each other’s conviction that the episode, in fact, actually happened.  We almost never get reinforcement of our past life memories –even under hypnosis we are remembering events in a vacuum that is difficult to validate in any reliable way.  Some people are lucky enough(as I was) to find outside validation of information from a regression session – but even when that is the case it is an isolated experience that can often leave you wondering, is this just a coincidence or is it really true?  Thus we may come in direct contact with a past life reference and yet be the first dismiss any feelings of familiarity if we cannot readily explain them.

Returning to the idea that launched this post, the concept that we do not remember our past life memories because of “forced amnesia by design,” after study and reflection, I doubt that is really true (or, at least, not wholly true).  The advantages of not remembering our past lives mentioned in the introduction seem to be at least offset, if not completely outweighed, by the disadvantages.  Further, it seems that when we do encounter a memory ‘cue’ those memories can be accessed, even if it is a very primitive form of access.  If we were intended to not ‘carry the weight’ of those past life memories why would we be able to access them at all?  Finally, although we don’t recall specific context related to those memories in any kind of organized fashion, we are hardly immune to their existence.  Past life influences and patterns of behavior can wreak havoc all over our lives again and again without us even realizing what is happening.  Hopefully, in this post I have laid out some reasoning that may help explain why we do not remember our past lives, but I leave you to decide whether this is biology or by design.

In closing, I’d like to share a brief anecdote Howes relates of an amnesiac patient that I find particularly compelling and relevant in capturing the influence these ‘hidden’ past life memories can have on us, “individuals suffering from amnesiac syndrome show impairment in explicit memory[27], but they often demonstrate normal implicit memory.[28]  For instance, the French doctor Claparede reported that he had shaken hands with an amnesiac patient while concealing a pin, which pricked her.  When they met again, the patient had no recollection of having encountered the doctor before,but she refused to shake hands with him. (Claparede 1911).”[29]

[1] see post on choosing our parents, The Ring of Destiny

[2] JOS loc 57

[3] JOS loc 850

[4] Memories, Dreams, Reflections Loc 704

[5] I chose Human Memory: Structures and Images by Mary B. Howes.  As with all scientific research and conclusions (and anything in life, really) not all academics agree on a particular theory or conclusion.  However, the concepts I introduce in this post seemed (as presented in the reference material) to represent relatively basic mainstream ideas about how the brain’s memory function works.

[6] empirical / information related to what’s picked up by the senses

[7] information related to our interpreted meaning of a particular event

[8] encoding = storing a memory

[9] one mainstream branch of current memory theory is constructivism.  In short, the idea behind constructivism is that our memories are ‘constructed’ in storage and also ‘constructed’ upon retrieval.  That is – various components if a given memory are stored and processed in multiple locations in the brain and ‘re-constructed’ when we retrieve the memory versus retrieving a ‘whole’ memory.  Components of this philosophy appear to have been modified and elaborated on or served as launching pad for some of the more current theories mentioned in this posts such as the use of scripts and schemas.

[10] Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006),  loc 5118

[11] Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), loc 5125

[12] Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), loc 5151 – also refer to footnote #9 on constructivism

[13] Aside from schemas and scripts there exist other higher-order structures that help us make sense of our world and therefore support our memries of various events.  I have stuck to the most relevant ones for this post here.  The others in no way contradict or undermine the case being made in this post.

[14] Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), loc 3131

[15] Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), loc 3369

[16] Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), loc 5553

[17] Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), loc 3380

[18] Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), loc 3380

[19] Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), loc 3386

[20] Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), loc 876

[21] Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), loc 566

[22] Memories, Dreams, Reflections C.G. Jung, Aniela Jaffe, Vintage; Reissue edition (January 26, 2011) loc 719

[23] being in the garage, a place we kids were not allowed to go, and under a dropcloth – not to mention that my uncle and I were not always on the best of terms, I did not have many chances to spend time with or even look at the car.  I do remember – while they lived in the house with the detached garage off the backyard and the access door standing open, I always retained a sortof low level awareness of it’s presence when I was in the yard.  The shape watched like a ghost, the form only partially visible, a khaki shrouded mystery.

[25] Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), loc 5547

[26] Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), loc 5559

[27] explicit memory refers to changes that occur in long term memory that result in material actually being recalled – Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), Loc 6606

[28] implicit memory involves changes that occur in long term memory that do NOT result in conscious recall – Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), loc 6606

[29] Human Memory: Structures and Images, Mary B Howes, SAGE Publications, Inc (November 22, 2006), loc 6618

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