An Experience in Recollecting


IT has occurred to the writer that the extent to which it is possible, by a determined and persistent effort of the will, to recall some special event long since forgotten, or revive a certain association of impressions which time and stress of circumstances seem to have blotted utterly and irrevocably out of our consciousness, has not yet been given its due share of attention.

The remarkable fasts of Dr. Tanner served to extend the supposed limit of human endurance without food so far beyond any previous conceptions of it as to confound the physiologists. So, perhaps, some one, by a series of careful observations and experiments, may so extend our ideas of the limit of human recollection as to astonish the psychologists.

Indeed, already there seems enough of fact and experience to warrant the assumption that, given a healthy brain, the limit of recollection is determined simply by the measure of will power of which one is capable. For instance, there are our daily surprises of involuntary recollection, not only convincing us of the abiding nature of our impressions, but also illustrating the strangely erratic ways they have of passing in and out of the orbit of our consciousness. And further confirmation of the remarkable tenacity of our impressions and the extraordinary possibilities of their revival is found in the familiar and uniform testimony of those persons rescued from drowning or other situations of great peril, who tell us how the events of a lifetime passed with incredible swiftness in review before them.

Now, if such conditions of mental exaltation are brought on involuntarily by such extreme emergencies, it seems not at all improbable that a similar condition of super-exalted and active memory might be invoked by the efforts of a strong, welldisciplined will. If people generally were possessed of this conviction, there can be little doubt of its proving of great practical advantage in many ways. Take, for example, the distressing situation of a person falsely accused, or of one whose life or fortune or honor may depend on the complete recollection of some little event, or the important words uttered on a certain occasion, with all the attending and confirming circumstances : the usual course, after a few fitful and hopeless endeavors to recall these misty and faded-out impressions, is for the person to give up in utter despair ; but if he were encouraged to believe, and fully assured, that by long and sustained effort (it might be of days’, it might he of weeks’ duration), he would at last be able to recall the exculpating words and the collateral incidents, is it not quite probable that he would succeed?

Such an illustration of the possibility of recollection is furnished by Dr. Holmes’s story (in Mechanism in Thought and Morals) of the gentleman who, in the last agonies of drowning, had restored to him remembrance of having placed between the leaves of a book, years before, a certain bond, the loss of which involved not only a large sum of money, but his reputation for veracity as well. Now, if this person had been fully persuaded that by determined and prolonged effort to recall his act he could at last revive recollection of the missing bond, it is more than probable that he would have accomplished it, and not been indebted for its recovery to the adventitious aid of hydropathic treatment.

A little experience of the writer, though not claimed to be at all conclusive, yet leads him to believe that this might have been done. About twenty-five years ago, he, in company with two young ladies, attended a concert in Troy, the attractive feature of which was the singing of a certain worthy and aspiring young lady of Albany, then known simply as Miss Emma Lajeunesse, now as the famous singer Madame Alban i.

The programmes provided for the occasion were of unusual amplitude, and included, besides the order of exercises, choice selections from noted authors, intended to amuse and edify the audience while waiting. It occurred to one of our company to propose that we should try which of us could soonest commit and recite a certain little poem ascribed to Goethe. The writer succeeded in doing it by the time the concert commenced.

The incident served its purpose for the time and, like other trivialities invented for an occasion, passed out of his mind, as did the poem also.

Months after, one of the ladies wrote him, inquiring if he could then recall the lines which she had tried but evidently failed to recollect. At first, though he made quite prolonged effort to do so, he could not even remember the subject, and it was only after much further labor that part of a line came to him. But his pride revolting at a confession of failure, he still kept on trying to remember, and by this persistence through the day brought a few more scattered fragments to mind. That night he dropped to sleep with the resolve to waken early, and while the brain was clearest make another attempt to recall it. Accordingly, waking about four o’clock A. M., after struggling some time, he managed, as Mark Twain has expressed it, to “ blast out " two of the stanzas, after which, being quite exhausted by the effort, he fell asleep again. But he must have left the recollecting machinery running, for, when he wakened again at seven, the words of the last stanza were not longin marshaling themselves in order, ready to pass out through the narrow gate into consciousness.

At that time he noted the fact that, just as the faults of a negative are reproduced in the copied photograph, so one or two little inaccuracies, into which he would fall in spite of himself when first committing the lines, again appeared in his labored recollection of them.

His experience, too, confirmed the observation of others, that, once give the brain an impulse towards the solving of any problem, the continuity of its effort in that direction is not entirely broken by the intervention of sleep, or its diversion for a time to other thoughts.