I am vaguely aware that sight works in such a way that it is more difficult to make out details if you are staring directly at something than if it is in your peripheral vision but close to what you’re looking at.
I have reason to believe that memory works in a similar way. I seem to have trouble remembering something if I am trying to remember it directly, but I have absolutely no problem remembering things that are closely related.
Example: I happen to have a reason to want to remember the name of a character on a TV show. I adopt a strategy of remembering the names of the other characters to see if I can get to the name by association. I remember every regular character with ease except the one character I’m trying to remember.
Can anyone explain this?
Is there a way of using the knowledge of this phenomenon to improve one’s memory?
Could this effectively be described as the don’t think of pink of pink elephants complex, but in reverse? You are told to not think of a pink elephant, and obviously to completely see that phrase in entirety most people should automatically picture what they were just told not to. Now, you are intentionally trying to remember one thing or one out of many things; how and why does it escape? I don’t really know.
That is nonsense. The greatest visual acuity is in the fovea, where the cone cells are packed far more densely than light sensitive cells are packed elsewhere in the retina. The fovea is that part of the retina where the image of something falls when you are looking straight at it. (In a way, looking straight at something just means getting its image onto your fovea.)
You may be thinking of the fact that in low light conditions, where the light is too dim for cone cells to work, and we depend upon rod cells for vision, then you can’t see things if you look straight at them. This is because there are no rods in the fovea, just cones. So in low light (low enough so that you are not seeing any colors), yes, it does help to look slightly away from something. However, you will still not be able to see nearly as much detail as you can when looking straight at something in a good light. There is no part of the retina where rod cells are packed anything like as densely as cones are in the fovea.
Another fact in the general vicinity of what you are saying is that, if you were to stare directly at something keeping your eyes perfectly still you would not be able to make out all the details that you can if your eyes were allowed to move (and after a fairly short time you would not be able to see anything at all). However, without the use of fairly sophisticated technology it is not possible to keep your eyes still enough for this effect to have any significant impact in real life. Even when we think we are holding them still, in fact our eyes are still moving imperceptibly, and they need to be, in order for us to see. [See here (pdf).]
This is not analogous to the non-fact about vision that you began with. I think it is probably an example of what is called the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon: you know that you know something, but it is somehow “blocked” so that you are unable to bring it to consciousness, no mater how hard you try. (Some time later, once you have stopped trying too hard, it will often pop into your mind quite spontaneously.) The TOTT phenomenon is not very well understood, and can certainly be annoying when it happens to you, but it is not part of how memory normally operates. It happens extremely infrequently compared to the great frequency (I would guess, typically several times per minute) that we either remember things successfully, or become aware that we have forgotten something.