Sorry, I Just Forgot!


Do you ever have trouble remembering someone’s name, or a task that you were supposed to have accomplished but didn’t, or maybe how to safely execute a procedure that you don’t do very often? I know…. you can’t remember! Well if you do forget then you are perfectly normal. Forgetting is a cognitive event that everyone experiences from time to time, but why? What causes us to forget and is there anything we can do about it? Bottom line is that when we forget, we have either failed to encode the information into long-term-memory (LTM), which means we don’t have the information stored in the first place, or we have failed to retrieve it effectively. The failure to remember the name of someone that we have just met is probably an encoding failure because we don’t move the person’s name from working memory to LTM and it just disappears or gets knocked-out because of the short-term nature of working memory. To get it into LTM we have to “elaborate” on the information in some way, maybe with a rhyme, or rehearsal, or some other mnemonic technique. The problem is that most of us either don’t expend the effort needed to transfer information like names of people we probably won’t meet again to LTM, or other information that comes in right after we hear the name interferes with transfer. But what about information that is important, like a meeting that we scheduled for 10:00 AM next Monday with a coworker about an important project that we are working on, or wearing your safety glasses when using a grinder in your home workshop? Both are important but might require different assistance to avoid forgetting. Maybe you put the meeting on your calendar but didn’t create a reminder because this is an important meeting and you will certainly not forget to check your calendar Sunday night. But you were busy watching Sunday Night Football and didn’t check your calendar and when you got a call from your coworker at 10:10 on Monday morning asking why you weren’t in the meeting, you were totally shocked that you hadn’t remembered the event. Maybe you began operating your grinder without putting on your safety glasses because the glasses weren’t readily available. These types of retrieval failures are most likely caused by something that impacts us all….interference at retrieval. There has been a lot of research into the effects of interference on memory both at encoding and at retrieval and the evidence is pretty clear…..retrieval is cue dependent (a context effect) in that it is stimulated by hints and clues from the external and internal environment (i.e., our context). If the salient cues that were present at encoding are present at retrieval, then you are less likely to forget, i.e. have a retrieval failure. The more similar the context at encoding and retrieval the greater the chances of remembering. Interference by dissimilar cues like the report that you started working on at 8:00 AM on Monday when you got to work increase the chances of forgetting the meeting. Or not having safety glasses readily available and obvious on the grinder. The way we can capitalize on the strengths of our brains and overcome it’s short comings is to better understand how our brains work. In the case of the meeting, creating cues that will be present at both encoding and retrieval is very helpful. Creating a reminder when putting the event on your calendar and then experiencing that same reminder cue before the meeting, or putting the meeting on your to-do list and then visualizing your to-do list at the beginning of the day are things that capitalize on our brain’s strengths and help avoid its weaknesses. But what about remembering to wear your safety glasses when operating a grinder? Something as simple as hanging safety glasses on the grinder switch can help. Also, research has clearly demonstrated that emotional cues tied to information at encoding increase the chances of accurate retrieval. Creating a visual image of an eye injury or hearing/reading a vivid story of a real grinder related eye injury will increase the chances that simply seeing the grinder will cause you to remember to put on your safety glasses. The bottom line is that the more we understand how we function cognitively, the better able we are to create contexts that help us remember and succeed.