Mind Pops: Memories From Out of the Blue
Out to dinner recently, a friend and I were discussing an organization whose name implies one thing, when in actuality, what they promote is entirely the opposite. We both racked our brains to come up with the name of that organization with no success. Days later, without any recent thought of the elusive name – the words Discovery Institute sprung forward in my mind. It was a spontaneous and surprising recall that brought me relief and pleasure. “Ah Ha! That’s what we were trying to remember the other night. Yes!” I said to myself. These types of memories are called Mind Pops.
They are also referred to as involuntary semantic memories. As was the case in my example, they are completely involuntary in that this type of recall occurs without any current conscious, active thought. In the more scholarly term (involuntary semantic memories), the word semantic suggests that the relevant recall springs forth from one’s semantic knowledge – for example, most commonly the item recalled is a word, phrase, image, melody, or a proper name that one has learned or has previously been exposed to. These recall events pop into conscious thought (i.e., your “mind“), without current conscious active pursuit – thus the origin of the more compelling descriptor Mind Pops.
These memory events are a relatively new topic of research revealing, as was the case in my example, that such events are not always truly random. Although the memory may be irrelevant at the exact moment that it pops into awareness, they usually are linked to one’s past experiences. Sometimes they occur with no conscious awareness of the the trigger itself. In my example, there was an event that consciously set the stage for my Mind Pop (i.e., striving to recall the Discovery Institute), but some Mind Pops are more mysterious.
Kvavilashvili and her colleague George Mandler, propose that “the completely out of the blue” Mind Pops are often explained by “long-term priming.” Priming itself is an interesting topic, but essentially it is a phenomena whereby your behavior can be altered by exposure to stimuli that enters your unconscious (implicit) memory. Research has demonstrated that people can be primed to be more polite and patient if unwittingly exposed to words in an unrelated task that lists concepts associated with being polite and patient. People will walk more slowly if they are implicitly primed with words associated with the elderly. Furthermore, recall of trivia is better if people are asked to think about the role of being a college professor before being asked the trivia questions relative to folks asked to first think about being a soccer hooligan (with other variables held constant).
This unconscious priming sets the stage for these mysterious out of the blue Mind Pops. Subconscious exposure to an image, a word, a song, or a scene serves as the trigger for later Popping. As the word subconscious implies, the exposure occurs completely outside of conscious awareness. When Kvavilashvili and Mandler asked subjects to journal their Mind Pops, there were numerous examples where the Pops had no clear, or very subtle, triggers. “Most of the information we encounter on a daily basis activates certain representations in the mind,” Kvavilashvili explains. “If you go past a fish and chips shop, not only the concept of fish may get activated but lots of things related to fish, and they may stay activated for a certain amount of time—for hours or even days. Later on, other things in the environment may trigger these already active concepts, which have the feeling of coming out of nowhere.” Kvavilashvili noted that “I got curious about [Mind Pops] because they seemed so random and out of the blue, but these mind pops are genuine fragments of knowledge about the world. What it shows us is that our subconscious often knows the meaning of an experience, even if consciously we don’t.”
Researchers like Dr. Lia Kvavilashvili are finding that Mind Pops are quite common. I’m sure that you have likely experienced such events yourself. Kvavilashvili suggests that they are most often words or phrases rather than images or sounds and that they usually occur in the midst of some routine activity such as engaging self care. In other words, they are most likely to occur when your mind is not focused on the task at hand and is free to wander. A variant of this phenomena is the Tip of the Tongue (TOT) experience – where you may be struggling to remember a name or a word and it feels as though it is right on the tip of your tongue; yet, you just can’t spit it out. Then later, when you have stopped actively pursuing it, the word surfaces. That letting go of pursuit allows your implicit (unconscious) memory do its work.
Although almost everyone experiences Mind Pops, there seems to be an increased frequency of Mind Popping in individuals with mental health issues. Researchers Keith Laws, Lia Kvavilashvili, and Ia Elua, conducted some preliminary research whereby they compared the frequency of Mind Pops in 37 individuals with schizophrenia, 31 people with depression, and 26 individuals with no mental health issues. On average, individuals with Schizophrenia reported 3-4 Mind Pops a weeks, while individuals with depression reported 1-2 a month, and healthy individuals reported 1-2 every six months. Invasive thoughts that bleed through consciousness are indeed some of the prominent features of schizophrenia and depression, so these categorical differences do make sense.
In my personal correspondence with Dr. Kvavilashvili, she differentiated Mind Pops from the Involuntary Autobiographical Memories I described in a previous post titled The Guilt-Empathy Connection. In that post I discussed a similar phenomena whereby “serenity seems to occasionally pave the way for a sequence of thoughts triggered by a song or a smell, or anything really, that ushers in a blast from the past. A cavalcade of memories then flow forth both effortlessly and seamlessly. And all of this occurs outside of conscious control. For me, it often begins with a pleasant memory, but it can take a circuitous route, bringing me to memories that I would prefer remain inaccessible. The ending point is usually a moment in time where I come face to face with a mistake I made – usually a long forgotten unintentional misstep that reveled a less sensitive or perceptive side of my persona.“ Dr. Kvavilashvili noted that there seem to be “personality and individual difference variables at play” in my type of guilt based Involuntary Autobiographical Memories.
In a cursory review of the literature, I did come across a study by Dr. Dorthe Berntsen and she wrote that “The involuntary [autobiographical] memories more frequently referred to specific episodes, came with more physical reaction, had more impact on mood, and dealt with more unusual and less positive events.“ This coincides with my anecdotal experiences (for whatever that is worth). For me, these events were indeed outliers, they were negative and viscerally so, and they did significantly affect my mood. Mind Pops are quite different from such Involuntary Autobiographical Memories in that the Pops are more semantic in nature (rather than biographical or experiential), and the Pops tend to be more positively experienced.
Although Mind Pops and Involuntary Autobiographical Memories are commonplace, they certainly constitute manifestations of our amazing and incredibly complex brain. Please share your interesting Mind Pops or Involuntary Autobiographical Memories in the Comments section below so that you can showcase the amazing capabilities of your brain. And when you have one of those “out of the blue” Mind Pops look deep to find the source of the subconscious trigger – you might be amazed by your inattentional blindness or the vastness of what your mind’s eye takes in beyond what you see.
Berntsen, D., and Hall, N. M., (2004). The episodic nature of involuntary autobiographical memories. Memory & Cognition. Jul; 32(5): 789-803.
Cowen, Mark, (2012). ‘Mind-pop’ frequency increased in schizophrenia patients. MedWire News.com
Elua, I., Laws, K., and Kvavilashvili, L.. (2012). From mind-pops to hallucinations? A study of involuntary semantic memories in schizophrenia. Psychiatry Research. V. 196 (2), Pgs. 165-170.
Jbar, Ferris, (2012). Mind-Pops: Psychologists Begin to Study an Unusual form of Proustian Memory. Scientific American.com
Kvavilashvilia, L., and Mandler, G. (2003). Out of one’s mind: A study of involuntary semantic memories. Paper shared by author in personal correspondence.
Science Daily (2012). Mind-Pops More Likely With Schizophrenia. ScienceDaily.com