Absentmindedness

Maybe you've never forgotten something as significant as turning off the ignition before getting out of your car, but certainly you've forgotten where you put your keys. That's a common example of absentmindedness, difficulty remembering a bit of information or an event because it didn't sufficiently register in the first place. Absentmindedness frequently results when you are trying to do two things at once and don't pay enough attention to either task. It can also occur when something or someone distracts you, pulling your focus away or fragmenting your concentration. You can't find your car keys (or your eyeglasses or your pen, and so on) because you didn't focus on where you put them when you came in the front door. Because you were thinking of something else (or, perhaps, nothing in particular), you didn't encode the information securely.

Forgetting an appointment or skipping a dose of medication— anything that involves doing something at a specific time—are other examples of absentmindedness. In these cases, it's likely that you didn't focus on cues that could remind you to follow through with a planned activity. If your doctor instructed you to take your medicine at bedtime and you forgot to do so, it could be that you didn't pay close enough attention to the key word: bedtime. If you had, chances are that certain details of your bedtime routine, such as brushing your teeth or watching a particular TV show, would have served as cues to remind you to take your medicine.

A Chinese proverb tells us that the palest ink is better than the best memory. Where appointments and schedules are concerned, the best cues are written reminders. It's unrealistic to expect that you will be able to keep your entire calendar in your head. It's not that the information is unimportant, but most relevant details, like dates and times, are simply too fleeting—and too "low contrast"— to store in long-term memory. And yet you probably won't use the information soon enough for short-term memory to be of any help.

When I see patients who complain about absentmindedness, I counsel them to keep all of their appointments and to-do lists on a calendar or in a PDA—and to cultivate a routine of reviewing this information at least three times each day (first thing in the morning, at midday, and in the evening). Anchoring the schedule check to usual mealtimes is an example of using a cue to increase the likelihood of remembering to enact a behavior. Once a person develops the habit of doing this, the problem usually resolves.

Blocking

Someone asks you a question and the answer is right on the tip of your tongue—you know that you know it, but you just can't think of it. This tip-of-the-tongue experience is probably the most familiar example of blocking, being unable to recall a specific memory because another memory is standing in the way. When you have this experience, your recall failure is not due to inattention or loss of the information from memory storage. On the contrary, blocking occurs when a memory is properly stored in your brain, but something is obscuring it, keeping you from finding it.

Often the memory block is another bit of information that overlaps the same "semantic space" as the information you're searching for. In other words, it possesses one or more of the key attributes of the sought-after information. This interfering memory is so intrusive that it gets in the way when you try to retrieve the memory you want. The harder you try to peer around the edge of this interloper, the more insistent it becomes at forcing its way into your consciousness. Let's say you're trying to think of James Dean's last movie (Giant), but Rebel Without a Cause keeps coming to mind. You know that this is the wrong answer. You also know that the right answer is Giant, but you can't think of it because Rebel is blocking the way.

A common example of blocking is when you call one of your children by the name of another. Convinced that this error is the 32 first slip down a slippery slope that will end with failure to rec ognize their most beloved family members, more than one patient has broken into tears in my office. Many patients who come with this concern associate this type of innocuous error with the experience of a parent or grandparent with late-stage Alzheimer's disease, who eventually failed to recognize them. But occasionally calling one family member by another's name is not, in and of itself, a sign of a memory disorder.

Memory researchers refer to blocking memories as "ugly stepsisters" because they're domineering, like the stepsisters in Cinderella. Ugly stepsisters have been used in studies of memory. In one such experiment, people were given lists of uncommon words and asked to match them with lists of possible definitions. When choices included incorrect definitions that were similar to the accurate definitions, more people had memory blocks than when unrelated definitions were given.

Functional imaging studies provide a clue about how blocking might work. When you're retrieving a memory, some brain regions become more active and others become less active. Memory researchers interpret this finding to mean that the active regions inhibit the other regions. This inhibition can be advantageous, facilitating retrieval by preventing your brain from calling up the wrong information. But when you call up an ugly stepsister, the activated regions that held this blocking information might suppress the regions needed to retrieve the sought-after response.

Memory researchers believe that memory blocks become more common with age and may explain why older people often have difficulty remembering names. In any case, there's some encouraging news about blocking. Research shows that approximately half of the time people are able to retrieve a blocked memory within one minute.

Misattribution

Misattribution refers to mistaking the source of a specific memory. Misattribution can take many forms. You might have heard that a store in your neighborhood was closing and you may believe that you saw a sign about this in the store window. In reality there was 133

no such sign; rather, a neighbor told you the news. Another type of misattribution occurs when you're convinced that a thought you had was totally original when, in fact, it came from something you'd read or heard. This sort of misattribution explains cases of unintended plagiarism, in which you write something that contains phrases or thoughts from an article or a book that you read. Misattribution can have profound consequences when witnesses to crimes—or members of the media—don't get their sources straight.

Like blocking, misattribution also seems to become more common with age. One reason is that the older you are, the older your memories are, and old memories, which have not been retrieved frequently and recently enough, are particularly prone to misattribution. As you age, you're also more likely to incorrectly attribute newly acquired memories because you are less able to encode and retain specific situational details and tend to rely more heavily on gist or general familiarity when forming a new memory. But make no mistake: misattribution happens to people of all ages. It can be frustrating and embarrassing, but it's usually not a sign of a memory disorder.

Two strategies can help cut down on misattribution. One strategy is to make a point of concentrating on details and specifics when you want to remember something important. As you focus on new information, ask yourself the five Ws: Who told me this? What was the content of the information? Where was I when I encountered this information? When did this happen? Why is this important to remember? This type of effortful, detail-oriented processing will reduce many types of inaccuracies, including misattribution.

Another strategy is to take a moment to mentally examine a memory when you first call it up before jumping to a conclusion about its source. Here's why. Misattribution often occurs when a piece of information is so familiar that you reflexively associate it with similar information that you already know without stopping to think whether the association is valid. Think back to the exam-34, ple I gave earlier about the store going out of business. It's under standable that you might assume you saw a going-out-of-business sign in the window because such signs are common at stores that are closing. But if you'd stopped to think about where you learned about this particular store closing, you'd have improved your odds of matching the information to its true source.

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