Have you ever had the feeling that you know the answer to something before you actually had the answer? Everybody has. The fact that NPR has a quiz program by that called Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” is a testament to how familiar and ubiquitous this feeling is. I was thinking about this the other day when I couldn’t remember the name of a

I was thinking about this the other day when I couldn’t remember the name of a muscle in my upper arm. I knew that I knew it –and that knowledge that you know is called meta-knowledge, or metacognition. Did you ever have things “on the tip of your tongue”? This is meta-knowledge. although you couldn’t retrieve it, you knew that you knew it.

Now let’s think about it a bit deeper. What a marvelous capacity our brain has. How can it know that the required information is there somewhere, although it could not access it immediately? The short answer is: we don’t know the mechanism for that, and it would probably be one of the hardest brain puzzles to decipher.


How to retrieve information? Just forget about it for a while

Sad to say, I have had this experience of “senior moments” on and off for many years. No, not to worry –this is not Alzheimer’s. It is quite normal. By now, I have developed several techniques for retrieving memories lost in the archives of my brain. The most effective one: don’t try to force it. Just forget it for a while, and it will pop up. Sometimes it will be a word that we say or hear that will trigger an association with the lost word. And sometimes it just pop up out of nowhere, an hour or a day later.

What that means is that while you are just forgetting about it, you actually don’t. The brain is working non-stop in the background, unobtrusively looking for the information. In fact, the realization that the brain never sleeps came from electrical and imaging studies, all showing “background noise” that had been dismissed as machine noise or random and meaningless activity.

It turns out that this activity is far from meaningless; it is this unconscious activity that retrieves memories and provides inspiration for “flashes of insight”. It is not just a coincidence that daydreaming is associated with creativity; during daydreaming this background activity, with its trove of unexpected connections and associations, comes to the fore, and voilá, an idea is born, a picture from the distant past is seen in the mind’s eye, a smell of a great childhood dish wafts in.


Moonwalking with Einstein

These connections are also responsible for retrieved memory. Joshua Foer’s wonderful book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, is about his becoming, with only one year of training, the champion in one of the ten events in the U.S. memory competition is instructive. If you want to remember something forever, weave a story around the word, the number, or the idea. And the more bizarre, the better. Our brain works through associations and remembers best the things that are outliers, things that are not ordinary but extraordinary, not commonplace but outside the realm of common experience. Hence the improbable moonwalk with Einstein.

Oh, yeah. about that muscle. It was the deltoid, stupid me. How could I forget a muscle into which I administered countless injections? But I did. Determined not to forget again, I formed my own sequence of connections: many muscles in the area have geometric names: trapezoid, rhomboid, and yes –deltoid.

Never again shall I forget thee, my dear shoulder muscle.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.