Many events that we interpret as memory failures are actually failures of attention. At any instant a vast flood of information streams into our central nervous system. Photons strike the retinas of our eyes, sound waves cause our ear drums to vibrate, tactile neurons are stimulated by the feel of clothes on our bodies, all of this sensory information passes into our brains.
Attention, that searchlight focus of awareness, is a prerequisite for memory. If we do not pay attention to something we are unlikely to remember it. In 1979 Raymond Nickerson and Marilyn Adams published a study of the ability of US citizens to remember the details of the American penny. If you look at the picture below you will see fifteen representations of the common one cent piece. All but one is inaccurate in some detail. Without reference to a real penny can you tell which one is correct?
If you failed you are not alone. Most people can not identify the correct coin. How is that we can not remember the details of this object we have handled and looked at all our lives? While you have looked at a penny it is unlikely that you have paid attention to it.
Attention is a limited resource, it can be strained to the breaking point. This is the reason we must turn down the car radio when we seek an unknown address. We have all had the experience of talking to a perfectly nice person at a party, only to discover that some other conversation is much more interesting than the one we are stuck in. We have to struggle to maintain focus and continue attending to the less interesting words of the our conversational partner.
The things that we attend to are the things of which we are aware. Awareness is the front end of the memory system and if we do not pay attention to information, it will never enter the memory system. Information that is not attended or that is processed in a habitual or automatic fashion with out awareness will not be remembered.
Why did we forget where we parked the car? Because when we arrived at the mall we were preoccupied (the kids were screaming, we were in a hurry, and so on) and did not pay attention to where we parked. If we had made a point of noting where we parked on arrival (“to the left of the Trader Joe’s, just near the food court entrance”) there would be a much greater probability of finding the car.
Driving and parking a car are examples of an automatic habitual processes. Over our life time we learn to make many of our actions automatic, freeing up our awareness to attend to other matters. This is a very useful division of labor, but it means that we don’t attend to things that we do automatically and are less likely to remember them. Losing small objects, like keys, wallets, and cell phones fall into this category. We are used to handling these things habitually without attention. Thus, we experience a high degree of forgetting of things related to routine tasks. We are so used to shutting the garage door, that we do it without attention. Thus, it is not surprising that we may not recall if we actually did shut it.
There are two ways to deal with this type of forgetting. One is to engineer our habits. For example, we could designate a special place for our keys, say a hook in the bedroom, where we always hang them up at the end of the day.
The other approach is to disrupt our habitual processing, cuing ourselves to pay attention at a critical moment. We can use this approach to help us remember names.
Lack of attention helps to explain why we have such difficulty remembering names. It is true that names are particularly difficult to remember. We tend to be good at recognizing faces (“I know that I know that person”), but bad at associating the correct name with the face. Like all primates we devote a large part of the cortex to processing visual information, we are visually dominant. Matching a name with a face, however, requires the complex coordination across a number of neural tasks.
However difficult the task of remembering names, it is rendered impossible if we never learned the name in the first place. You know the drill. You are introduced to someone, often in a stressful situation such as the first day of work. You are distracted and do not catch the name. The next time you meet you are too embarrassed to admit that you did not learn the name, a problem that compounds with time. One could spend an entire career not knowing the name of a coworker. Memory trainer Harry Lorayne joked that we can think of such cases of forgetting as “not getting”.
The alternative is to make sure you learn the name on the first day by disrupting the normal pattern of inattention. Pay attention to the name. Make a point of repeating the name when first introduced. If appropriate ask about pronunciation and spelling. Use the person’s name in the conversation and when you say goodbye. While not a guarantee, these simple procedures will increase the probability of remembering.