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Updated: Oct 4, 2021

The probing question on my mind while I walked around the parking lot the other night after late rounds at the hospital was: “Dude, where’s my car?” Before you laugh too hard at my predicament or dispense some ageist witticism, be honest. We have all done it – forgotten someone’s name, left the house keys at the house, put something in the wrong drawer and spent forever looking for it, or misplaced the car. These are all examples of a specific glitch in memory referred to as absent-mindedness whereby people “zone out” and make mistakes in daily life. There are two main determinants of absent-mindedness. One is how much attention we are paying at that moment and the other is how deeply we process and encode a certain memory.

1. Attention: Our attention has limited capacity. When we are focusing on a specific behavior or activity, we end up paying little attention to other actions or events in our surroundings. There are stunning demonstrations of our failures of attention in the psychology literature. For example, you may have heard of the invisible gorilla test - people watch a video while counting how many times three specific basketball players out of a group pass the ball. After about 30 seconds, someone in a gorilla suit walks into the scene, faces the camera, thumps their chest, and walks away. Routinely, at least half the viewers fail to see the gorilla! Stress also affects our already limited attentional control– we tend to hyper-focus on events causing the stress and completely miss other things. So, if you are worrying about a break up, or anxiously sorting through symptoms of the patient you rushed to the hospital to evaluate, it may render things like where you are parking your car invisible to your mind.

2. Memory encoding/depth of processing: Attention plays an important role in memory – we often forget things because we weren’t paying enough attention to them in the first place. Storing information in memory is called encoding. If you just attend to something superficially, that information is not encoded and you will likely not remember it. In a classic experiment by Craik and Tulving, subjects were shown words and had to either look at the font in which they were written (shallow processing), or to consider their meaning and how the words might fit into a sentence (deep processing). Those who did the deeper processing remembered the most words.

So, if you park somewhere in a hurry without thinking about it, good luck remembering where.

Attention and memory are neuro-biologically complex, energy-intensive functions that use many interacting parts of the brain. The Frontal Lobes – Prefrontal Cortex in particular - are essential in attention and short-term memory, while the Hippocampus and Temporal lobes are necessary to encoding and storing of memories. Impairments of these brain regions and their function can increase absent-mindedness to pathologic levels, as seen in ADHD or even dementia. However, most of us just need to declutter our lives; focus on the moment; manage stress; improve sleep, exercise and nutrition; and use cues and schedules to limit errors of absent-mindedness.

Read more:

Craik, F. I. M., & Tulving, E. 1975, Depth of Processing and the Retention of Words in Episodic Memory, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 104, 268-294.

Schacter, Daniel (2001), The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remember. Houghton-Mifflin.

Simons, D. J., & Chabris, C. F. 1999, Gorillas in our midst: Sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events, Perception, 28, 1059-74.

Post by: Nadia Fike


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