We’ve all had those moments, the times when we purposefully walk from one room to another only to forget what we had intended to do when we got there. Our memories are rather funny things. We find ourselves recalling instances from our childhood but can’t remember what was said five minutes ago. Our brains are filled with so much information that unless we anchor our thoughts to something significant or routinely repeat sequences we tend to lose those ideas.
I have the strange ability to recall vivid aspects of my childhood, even details from when I was still a toddler. I once described an event to my mother that kept frightening me, but I was unable to place where and when it had happened. I was on a boat with many people who were happy and enjoying the view. I sat on my mother’s lap feeling content until everyone suddenly ran to the edge of the ship and began pointing at an awesome figure standing in the water. My mom lifted me and joined the crowd, pointing out the monstrous steel object with a glee that should have comforted me, but did not. Instead I felt frightened and confused by the dark apparition that I was seeing.
When I recounted this memory to my mom she thought for a moment and came to the conclusion that I was describing our visit to the Statue of Liberty in New York City. She even produced a photo album with old black and white photos of the two of us sitting on the boat that took us out into the harbor. The strangest thing was that I could not have been more than about two years old when we took this trip. It seemed implausible that I would have recalled the event so clearly, and yet somehow I did.
Researchers have now learned that some individuals like myself are truly able to remember incidents from very young ages. Generally such people tend to exhibit obsessive compulsive traits as well. Somehow our brains notice and internalize even small details about particular situations. Most interesting is the concurrent fact that we also may be incredibly forgetful in the course of our daily activities when occurrences are mundane unless we take the time to create memory structures for ourselves.
I’ve been known to lose my glasses, leave my keys in a public bathroom, forget where I placed some rarely used item. Thus I find myself consciously rehearsing my mind to be certain that I don’t neglect something important. I create rigid routines to keep myself on track. The fact is that the vast majority of humans might easily become forgetful whenever their normal schedules are somehow changed. It is as though our brains become rattled, short out so to speak.
In these exceedingly hot summer days we hear tragic stories of children left in hot cars who die. Many times the parent honestly asserts that he/she did not remember that the child was in the back seat. They had become distracted by some chance adjustments to their normal ways of doing things. While such occurrences may seem improbable, those who study the mind say that it is not as unlikely as we may think, and it may happen to any one of us.
I heard a man tell of how he always drove his son to daycare and then he went to work. One morning his wife’s car was in the shop and so he first drove her to her place of business with the intent of taking the child to daycare next. Somehow in the morning rush and because his routine had been disrupted he actually did forget that his baby was still in the back seat. He parked in his usual spot and went to his office where he worked for an hour or so before something niggled at his brain and reminded him that he had never dropped the baby off. He rushed to the parking garage and found his boy in distress. Luckily all ended well, but it might have been the stuff of an horrific news story.
What we are being told is that we have to create artificial reminders for ourselves for even the most mundane tasks if we are to be certain that we do not forget to do them. If we have children in a car with us, we might place something like our purse or shoe in the back seat as a way of ensuring that we do not forget that they are present. We can create alarms and reminders on our electronic devices. We might even place sticky notes where they will be seen if we need tactile prompts. The point is to understand that it is actually a natural tendency to forget when our minds are preoccupied with so much information. It is up to us to create ways that work for us if we are to keep up with the overload of data that is passing continuously into our minds.
Too much forgetfulness can be a sign of bigger problems, but most of the time our lapses are just part of being normal. So go ahead and create routines, make lists, rehearse ideas, take enough time to be deliberate when in a foreign situation. It may save you from a real tragedy.