Page 1



an exploration of at tention and memory


edited and designed by


Alissa millenson


an exploration of at tention and memory

Dedicated to my family and friends.

Designer’s note This book is a complication of texts. Unless otherwise noted, the main text is excerpted from The Seven Sins of Memory written by Harvard psychologist Daniel S. Schacter. Other texts come from magazines, scienfitic journals, and popular science authors. A complete list of sources can be found at the back of this book. Enjoy!

The Lost Thought I felt a cleaving in my mind As if my brain had split; I tried to match it, seam by seam, But could not make them fit. The thought behind I strove to join Unto the thought before, But sequence ravelled out of reach Like balls upon a floor.

emily dickinson




1 1

The Basics of Memory

2 2

Attending and Remembering

4 2

Remembering What You Want To Do

6 2

Advantages of Absentmindedness

Your attention, please.

2 // Understanding absentmindedness

I am not absentminded. It is the presence of mind that makes me unaware of everything else. g. k . chesterton, journalist, novelist, essayist

Introduction by alissa millenson

When I went home for winter break, I noticed that many of the conversations between my parents and their friends revolved around the topic of aging and memory. Everyone seemed to relate to the experience of an absentminded moment of forgetting. Daniel Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of The Seven Sins of Memory: Why we remember and forget, defines absentmindedness as “lapses of attention� that occur during superficial or automatic encoding. We are more likely to forget information that not encoded deeply and direct our attention to other things. Living in The Information Age where multiple sources are fighting to win our attention at any given moment, the topic of memory, attention was particularly interesting to me. In casual conversations with other students and professionals , I found that not only had everyone expressed an absentminded moment of forgetting, but that they were actually concerned with the growing amount of information and their ability to remember thing in the future.

An absentminded person is someone so lost in thought that one does not realize what one is doing, what is happening, preoccupied to the extent of being unaware of one’s immediate surroundings. american heritage dictionary

Absentmindedness: Vice or Virtue? text by daniel schacter

Memory errors have long fascinated scientists, and during the past decade they have come to occupy a prominent place in our society. With the aging of the baby boom generation, memory problems are increasingly common among this large sector of the population. Forgotten encounters, misplaced eyeglasses, and failures to recall the names of familiar faces are becoming regular concerns for many adults who are busy trying to juggle the demands of work and family, and cope with the bewildering array of new communications technologies. How many passwords and PINs do you have to remember just to manage your affairs on the Internet, not to mention your voice mail at the office or your cell phone? Have you ever had to apply for a temporary PIN at a website because you’ve forgotten your permanent number? I certainly have. The desired information isn’t lost over time; it is either never registered in memory to begin with, or not sought after at the moment it is needed, because attention is focused elsewhere. Rather than portraying absentmindedness as an inherent weakness or flaw in system design I suggest that I can provide a window on the adaptive strengths of memory. •

4 // introduction

there are two questions you must ask to understand the basis for absentminded memory errors: 1. how deeply do we process and encode memories? 2. how much attention do we pay at critical moments?

Real absentminded people isaac newton // adam smith // andrÊ-marie ampère // sewall Wright // norbert Wiener // archimedes // albert einstein W I K I PEDI A

5 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

In our socIety, we’re all on chronIc systems overload. we’re multI-taskIng...talkIng on our cell phones, lIstenIng for beepers to go off, walkIng Into a store to shop...It’s very easy for certaIn thIngs to get lost In the shuffle. george grossberg m . d.,

st. louis university school of medicine ,

6 // introDUction

7 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

By holding this book in your hand you have taken the first step towards your goal.

Reading Preparation by alissa millenson

Presumably you are holding the book in your hands at this very moment. Congratulations! You have taken the first step to your goal. The material in this book explores how attention and encoding play a role in these errors, how cues can help us remember, and the advantages that come with having a wandering mind.

8 // introduction

state purpose

what is your


Grasp a message

Relate to absentminded people

relax your body

are you feeling

stressed? no



Place material in front of you

Restate your purpose

do you have a

cellular device? no

Apply your newfound knowledge

prepare to read


Turn it off

are your clothes

uncomfortable? Improve memory errors




Close your eyes


Open your eyes

9 // Understanding absentmindedness

Turn page

1 10

UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

10 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

Memory plays such a pervasive role in our daily lives that we often take it for granted until an incident of forgetting or distortion demands our attention. daniel schacter

the basics of memory

adapted from how human memory works, richard c . mohs, ph . d.

If you think of an object—say, a pen—your brain retrieves the object’s name, its shape, its function, and the sound when it scratches across the page. Each part of the memory of what a “pen” is comes from a different region of the brain. The entire image of “pen” is actively reconstructed by the brain from many different areas. Neurologists are only beginning to understand how the parts are reassembled into a coherent whole. If you’re riding a bike, the memory of how to operate the bike comes from one set of brain cells; the memory of how to get from here to the end of the block comes from another; the memory of biking safety rules from another; and that nervous feeling you get when a car veers dangerously close, from still another. Yet you’re never aware of these separate mental experiences, nor that they’re coming from all different parts of your brain, because they all work together so well.

11 // Understanding absentmindedness

the natural state of the braIn Is an assocIatIve state where one thIng leads to another. virginia postrel , author

(above) the brain is made up of two hemispheres, right and left. the left side of the brain is the seat of language and processes in a logical and sequential order. the right side is more visual and processes intuitively, holistically, and randomly. most people seem to have a dominant side. in this top view of the brain, the temporal lobe is hidden. (right) the sagittal cross section of the brain with the location of the four lobes.

The 4 Lobes of the brain Frontal lobe

occipital lobe

associated with reasoning, planning, parts of speech, movement, emotions, and problem solving. attentional processes are also located here.

temporal lobe

associated with visual processing. associated with perception and recognition of auditory stimuli, memory, and speech.

parietal lobe

associated with movement, orientation, recognition, perception of stimuli.

Every thought you have is part of a complex network of signals. Cells called neurons send these signals from one part of the brain to another depending on the type of information it carries. The image of the pen shows that even when you think of a simple and familiar object like a pen, that thought is made by different areas of your brain signaling to each other.

12 // the basics oF memory






this object is called a “pen”

it has a smooth texture

this object is used for writing


it is black and white



nib scratches on the paper

line weight varies with the pressure

13 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

60% of the publIc agreed that human memory works lIke a vIdeo camera, accurately recordIng the events we see and hear so that we can revIew and Inspect them later. In the united States, what do people believe about how memory works?

daniel simons, psychologist, university of illinois

what people believe about how memory works : a representative survey oF the u.s . population, daniel j. simons, christopher f. chabris

The statement above incorporates several erroneous beliefs. First, the idea that memory works like a video camera implies a level of completeness and accessibility of our representations that is inconsistent with known limits on visual perception and attention. the demographics of the 60%:

78.2% 69.4% 55.6% 46.7%

no college some college college graduate graduate school

Second, video recording implies a passive process in which the visual world is imprinted into memory. But decades of research have documented the influences of stored information on encoding and memory, arguing against the idea that memories are pure, bottom-up records; what is encoded depends on top-down goals and expectations. Finally, the idea that memory retrieval is akin to rewinding and replaying a tape contradicts the well–established idea that memory retrieval is a constructive process influenced by knowledge, beliefs, expectations, and schemas.

Implications of Misunderstanding Memory Incorrect beliefs about the properties of memory have broad implications: The media conflate normal forgetting and inadvertent memory distortion with intentional deceit, juries issue verdicts based on flawed intuitions about the accuracy and confidence of testimony, and students misunderstand the role of memory in learning.

A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. Schemas can be useful, because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting a vast amount of information.

The recap you are not so smart, daniel mcraney

The misconception: You see everything going on before your eyes, taking in all the information like a camera. The truth: You are aware only of a small amount of the total information your eyes take in, and even less is processed by your conscious mind and remembered.

15 // Understanding absentmindedness

Imagine attention as a hammer. The more attention you pay, the deeper the nail [or memory] will go.

how memory Actually Works imagine attention as a hammer, memories as the nails, and your brain as the board. nails that are hammered shallowly into the board are more likely to fall out and leave behind whatever they holding in place. nails that are hit with more force will go deeper into the board and remain there for longer. if you forgot something, it may be because you didn’t encode it very effectively, because you were distracted while encoding should have taken place, or because you’re having trouble retrieving it. if you forgot where you put your eyeglasses, you may not have really forgotten at all.instead, the location of your eyeglasses may never have entered into your memory in the first place.

To properly encode a memory, you must fi rst be paying attention. Since you cannot pay attention to everything all the time, most of what you encounter every day is simply filtered out with only a few stimuli passing into your awareness. The storage of a memory begins with its perception: The registration of information during perception occurs in the brief sensory stage. It’s your sensory memory that allows a perception such as a visual pattern, a sound, or a touch to linger for a brief moment after the stimulation is over. When you want to remember something, you retrieve the information on an unconscious level, bringing it into your conscious mind at will. You hold a phone number in your mind as you dial it, or you hold a task in mind—organizing your room, say—as you work on it. We use working memory throughout the course of a day. Working memory allows us to follow directions, to remember a question while raising your hand to answer it, and to hold on to new information you need to apply to your work.

16 // the basics oF memory

Sensory input

Rehearsal Retrieval



1 sec



20 to 30 sec

1 min – infinity Output

beta wave (14-30 hz)

below, a high frequency beta wave is emitted in the prefrontal coretex during concentration. Forgetting moDal memory moDel

the modal memory model was first proposed in 1968 by richard atkinson and richard shiffrin. although the model is not completely representative of our memory system, it is certainly a good place to start! Working memory is what you are consciously thinking now. it has a limited capacity and information is retained through repeated rehearsal. the more you pay attention, the more strongly a memory is encoded and the more likely it is to stick, much as a nail is more likely to stick when you put more force on the hammer.

17 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness


18 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

we don’t want a memory that Is goIng to store every bIt of experIence. we would be overwhelmed wIth the clutter of useless trIvIa.

ATTENDING AND rEmEmbErING the seven sins oF memory, daniel schacter

The participants were asked to memorize thousands of numbers and words, pages of faces and names, lengthy poems, and rearranged decks of cards. The victor in this battle of mnemonic virtuosos, a twenty-seven-year-old administrative assistant named Tatiana Cooley, relied on classic elaborative encoding techniques: generating visual images, stories, and associations that link incoming information to what she already knows. Given her proven ability to commit to memory vast amounts of information, one might also expect that Cooley’s life would be free from the kinds of memory problems that plague others. Yet the champ considers herself dangerously forgetful. I’m incredibly absent-minded,” Cooley told a reporter. Fearful that she will forget to carry out everyday tasks, Cooley depends on to-do lists and notes scribbled on sticky pads. “I live by Post-its,” she admitted ruefully. “ The image of a National Memory Champion dependent on Post-its has a paradoxical, even surreal quality: Why does someone with a capacity for prodigious recall need to write down anything at all? Can’t Tatiana Cooley call on the same abilities and strategies that she uses to memorize hundreds of words or thousands of numbers to help remember that she needs to pick up a jug of milk at the store? Apparently not: the gulf that separates Cooley’s championship memory from her forgetful everyday life illustrates the distinction between transience and absentmindedness.

19 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

When attention is divided, we may still record enough information about a face so that it seems familiar when we encounter it again, even though we do not engage in sufficient elaboration to recollect the person’s name, occupation, or other details later.

The mnemonic techniques that Cooley has mastered help her to counter the effects of the sin of transience. Give ordinary people a long string of numbers to memorize, and by the time they have gone much past the seventh or eighth digit, the first few on the list have faded. Not so for a skilled mnemonist like Cooley, who has encoded the numbers in a manner that makes them readily accessible even when time passes and more numbers are encoded. But the kinds of everyday memory failures that Cooley seeks to remedy with Post-it Notes—errands to run, appointments to keep, and the like—have little to do with transience. These kinds of memory failures instead reflect the sin of absentmindedness: Lapses of attention that include failing to remember information that was either never encoded properly (if at all) is available in memory but is overlooked at the time we need to retrieve it. Recent studies suggest that dividing attention during encoding does not necessarily prevent people from registering some information about an experience. Memory researchers have found it useful to distinguish between two ways in which we remember past experiences: recollection and familiarity.

20 // attending and remembering

Why can’t I remember? It’s possible for you to encounter someone who looks very familiar...but cannot recall how you know them. That is because some pieces of information are encoded in your long-term memory more deeply than others.

21 // Understanding absentmindedness

aging can produce a state that resembles a kind of chronic divided attention.

Recollection involves calling to mind specific details of past experiences, such as exactly where you sat in the restaurant you dined at last week, the tone of voice used by the waiter who served you, or the kind of spices used in the Cajun-style entrÊe that you ordered. Familiarity entails a more primitive sense of knowing that something has happened previously, without dredging up particular details. In the restaurant, for example, you might have noticed at a nearby table someone you are certain you have met previously despite failing to recall such specifics as the persons name or how you know her. Laboratory studies indicate that dividing attention during encoding has a drastic effect on subsequent recollection, and has little or no effect on familiarity. This phenomenon probably happens because divided attention prevents us from elaborating on the particulars that are necessary for subsequent recollection, but allows us to record some rudimentary information that later gives rise to a sense of familiarity. When attention is divided, we may still record enough information about a face so that it seems familiar when we encounter it again, even though we do not engage in sufficient elaboration to recollect the person’s name, occupation, or other details later. Mentally consumed with planning for a critical presentation the next day, you place your car keys in an unusual spot as you are reading over your notes. Or, thinking about how much money is left in your checking account after writing the latest check, you leave the checkbook on the dining room table. Even if some residual

22 // attending and remembering

if you spend five minutes each day looking for items like your keys or glasses, that adds up to approximately 30 hours looking for lost items each year.

familiarity remains from these encounters, it is not sufficient to prevent forgetting later on: you need to be able to recollect the details of where you put the keys or the checkbook. Lew Lieberman, a sixty-seven-year-old retired psychology professor, relates a particularly irritating incident of this kind: “A day does not go by when I do not spend time looking for something. Today I needed a new booklet of checks for my checkbook. When I went to get it, I found the very next booklet was missing. Apparently, at some earlier time, I could not fi nd my checkbook and had to use a check from the next booklet to write a check, but then I could not fi nd the missing booklet and have no recollection of having done this. But then, where is the booklet? “ Insufficient attention at the time of encoding may be an especially important contributor to absentminded errors in older adults. A series of experiments carried out by the psychologists Fergus Craik and Larry Jacoby indicates that aging can produce a state that resembles a kind of chronic divided attention. They found similar patterns of memory performance in older adults (aged sixties to seventies) who are allowed to pay full attention to incoming information during encoding and college students whose attention is divided during encoding. For instance, in Jacoby’s experiments both groups showed less recollection of past experiences than did college students who paid full attention at the time of encoding, even though all three groups showed similar levels of familiarity.

23 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

Attention is necessarily limited. There are only twentyfour hours in a day, and your brain can only process so much information. you can only pay attention to so many things at any one time and throughout the day. virginia postrel , author

Dividing attention reduces the overall amount of cognitive resources—the “energy supply” that fuels encoding—that can be devoted to incoming information. Likewise, Craik and others argue that aging is associated with a decline in cognitive resources, thereby resulting in patterns of performance that resemble those produced by divided attention. Attentional lapses that yield absent-minded forgetting are particularly likely for routine activities that do not require elaborative encoding. During the early stages of performing complex activities, such as driving a car or typing, we need to pay careful attention to every component of the activity. But as skill improves with practice, less and less attention is required to perform the same tasks that initially demanded painstaking effort. Numerous experiments have shown that practice on various kinds of tasks and skills results in a shift from attention-demanding, effortful task execution to automatic execution involving little or no deployment of attention. “Operating on automatic” provides us with the cognitive freedom to focus on unrelated matters as we perform what once was an attention-consuming task, such as driving a car. Most seasoned drivers, for example, are familiar with the unsettling experience of cruising along at sixty-five miles per hour on a six-lane interstate, and suddenly realizing that they have no recollection of the road for the past five miles. Absorbed with concerns that have nothing to do with driving, and relying on the well-learned skills that allow them to drive safely even when on automatic,

24 // attending and remembering

the experienced driver does not elaborate on what is going on around him and hence remembers nothing of it. This kind of amnesia for the automatic can lead to some jarring incidents of forgetting. It is probably responsible for the kind of forgetting I experienced when, on automatic, I put my eyeglasses down in an unlikely location. Even worse, people report frantically searching for glasses that, only moments ago, they casually pushed up on top of their heads, or running around the house looking for keys they are still holding. My own most frustrating “amnesia for the automatic� story occurred after finishing a round of golf last summer. I carried my clubs back to my car and prepared for the drive home. I usually put my car keys in my golf bag during the round, but could not find the keys there. Panicking, I emptied the contents of the bag to no avail. I couldn’t find the keys in my pockets and, assuming they had fallen out of the bag when I was playing, began silently cursing under my breath as I contemplated what to do next. Out of the corner of my eye, I then noticed the raised trunk of the car with the keys dangling from the back. Operating on automatic, I had already used the keys to open my trunk but had no memory of it.

25 // Understanding absentmindedness

Change Blindness Automatic or superficial levels of encoding can result in other kinds of absent-minded errors too. One of the most intriguing is known as “change blindness.� In studies of change blindness, people observe objects or scenes that unfold over time. Experimenters make subtle or large changes to the objects or scenes in order to determine whether people notice the changes. Change blindness occurs when people fail to detect the changes that the experimenter has made. The psychologists Daniel Levin and Daniel Simons have performed some of the most inventive research on change blindness. In one study, for instance, they showed participants a movie in which a young blond man sits at a desk. He then gets up, walks away from the desk, and exits the room. The scene then shifts outside the room, where the young man makes a phone call. Unknown to the observers, the man sitting at the desk is not the same person as the man who makes the phone call (although both are young, blond, and wear glasses, they are clearly different people when examined at all carefully). Only one-third of observers noticed the change. In another film, two women are shown sitting across a table from each other, sipping colas and munching on food as they chat. As the camera cuts back and forth between the two, it all seems pretty normal and mundane. When asked if they notice whether anything changed during the brief duration of the film, most people say they did not detect any changes, or perhaps noticed one. Yet in every frame there were numerous changes in the women’s clothes, props on the table, and so forth.

26 // attending and remembering

You put the water on to boil, then walk out of the house and start gardening.

routine activities such as making coffee or tea are especially susceptible to slips of action because they require little attention.

27 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

Approximately 50% of the people approached in this study didn’t notice when the person they were talking to was replaced by someone else. daniel levin and daniel simons, psychologists, the door study 1999

The Door Study Not satisfied with merely demonstrating change blindness in film segments, Levin and Simons asked whether such effects could also be demonstrated in live interactions. To test this idea, one experimenter asked someone on a college campus for directions. While they were talking, two men walked between them carrying a door that hid a second experimenter. Behind the door, the two experimenters traded places, so that when the men carrying the door moved on, a different person from the one who had been there just a second or two earlier was not asking for directions.

28 // attending and remembering

Experimentor #1 (E1] asked an older gentelman on the college campus for directions.


Meanwhile, Experimentor #2 [E2] and his friends were quickly appraoching with E2 hid out of sight behind the door.



As the men with the door passed, E2–who is also carrying a map with him– trades places with E1.



E2 E1 E2 E1


With E1 now the stowaway behind the door, the white-haired man resumes giving the young causasian man in front of him directions, not noticing that he is not, in fact, the same man.

29 // Understanding absentmindedness

The truth, though, is you see only a small portion of your environment at any one moment. Your attention is like a spotlight, and only the illuminated portions of the world appear in your perception. david mcraney, author , you are not so smart

The Invisible Gorilla In successive experiments, Simons has demonstrated even more dramatic effects by further restricting attention to an object. If you were watching a circle of people passing a basketball, and someone dressed in a gorilla costume walked through the circle, stopped to beat his chest, and exited, of course you would notice him immediately—wouldn’t you? Simons and the psychologist Chris Chabris filmed such a scene and showed it to people who were asked to track the movement of the ball by counting the number of passes made by one of the team. Focused on tracking the ball’s movement, people are blind to what happens to unattended objects and thus do not encode the sudden change. Brain imaging evidence from a related experimental procedure supports this idea. When people are instructed to pay attention to letter strings superimposed on line drawings of objects, parts of the left frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes respond more strongly to meaningful words than to random letters. But when they are instructed to pay attention to the line drawings, these regions no longer respond differently to words and random letters—even though participants look directly at the letter strings.

30 // attending and remembering

video still from Daniel J. simons, 1999

the invisible gorilla study is a test of selective attention. participants were asked to count how many times the players wearing white passed the ball. When asked how many passes were made, most got it right–15 passes. When asked if they noticed the gorilla walk by and beat his chest, only 1/3 did. When you follow the orange dot and take into account you were only paying attention to players wearing white.

31 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

the things you pay attention to create a moment to moment perception of reality. Everything else is lost or blurred. daniel mcraney, author , you are not so smart

In the earlier examples of change blindness, where people are free to attend to whatever they wish, change blindness probably occurs because people encode features of a scene at an extremely shallow level, recording the general gist of the scene but few of the specific details. To paraphrase Simons and his collaborators: successful change detection tends to occur when people encode elaborately the exact features that distinguish the original object or person from the changed one. In the “door study,” people who most often failed to notice that a different person emerged from behind the door were middle-aged and older adults; college students tended to notice the change. Older individuals might have encoded the initial (young) experimenter generically as a “college student,” whereas the college students (for whom the person asking directions was a peer) encoded the experimenter in a more specific way. To find out whether college students would be more susceptible to change blindness when induced to encode at a generic level, Simons and Levin repeated the “door study” attired as construction workers. College students now might tend to encode them more generically and, hence, show higher levels of change blindness. And they did: only four of twelve students noticed when a different construction worker emerged from behind the door to ask instructions. Thus, shallow encoding that does not proceed beyond a general level results in poor recollection of the details of a scene and consequent vulnerability to change blindness.

32 // attending and remembering

The Stroop Effect

stroop effect, www. snre .umich . edu

To understand the mental process involved in the Stroop effect, look at the following four letters: tree If you are like most people it is difficult for you not to quickly read the word “tree.� Most humans are so proficient at reading, at perceiving whole words, that they do not easily notice the individual letters. This is why proofreading is so hard to do. This tendency to quickly perceive words is used in testing for the Stroop effect. The Stroop effect is an outcome of our mental (attentional) vitality and flexibility. The effect is related to the ability of most people to read words more quickly and automatically than they can name colors. Even when asked to name the color of the ink, we tend to say the name the word represents.

The role of directed attention The cognitive mechanism at work in this process is called directed attention. This mental resource is used to manage our thoughts by inhibiting one response in order to say or do something else. It is useful in our effort to remain effective, productive, clearheaded and helpful. We can use it to inhibit the power of certain features of the immediate physical and social environment, as well as internal distractions, so as to allow consideration of less salient but nonetheless valued information.

Turn the page to take the Stroop test.

33 // Understanding absentmindedness


Quickly respond with the color in which the word is written, not the word itself.


34 // attending and remembering


Research indicates that directed attention is a scarce and finite mental resource. When placed under continual demand, our ability to direct the focus of our thoughts tires, resulting in a condition called directed attention fatigue (DAF). This condition reduces our overall mental effectiveness and makes consideration of abstract concepts and longterm goals difficult, at best.

35 // Understanding absentmindedness


36 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

memory Is deceptIve because It Is colored by today’s events. albert einstein, physicist

rEmEmbErING WhAT yOu WANT TO DO the seven sins oF memory, daniel schacter

In Marcel Proust’s monumental exploration of his own memory, Remembrance of Things Past, the author’s yearning to recapture lost moments from childhood seems to epitomize what memory is for: providing a connection between the present and the past. Yet in our daily lives, memory is just as much about the future as it is about the past. We are all familiar with the seemingly endless to-do lists that remind us of what we need to remember in the future. Pick up milk and cereal on the way home; call to make that airline reservation; drop off a manuscript at an associate’s office; confi rm tomorrow’s lunch date; mail in the mortgage payment on time; transfer money from savings to checking—the list could go on indefi nitely. Psychologists nowadays use the term “prospective memory” to describe remembering to do things in the future. Until recently, researchers had focused almost exclusively on the remembrance of things past which constituted the object of Proust’s yearnings and writings, even though people express more concern about remembering to carry out future actions than about other, retrospectively oriented aspects of memory.

37 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

Absentminded errors of prospective memory are annoying not only because of their pragmatic consequences, but also because others tend to see them as reflecting on credibility and even character in a way that poor retrospective memory does not.

This distinction may be because when retrospective remembering fails—forgetting a name or a fact, or confusing when and where two events occurred—memory is seen as unreliable. But when prospective remembering fails—forgetting a lunch appointment or failing to drop off a package as promised—the person is seen as unreliable. Have you ever forgotten to send in your monthly mortgage check or credit card payment? If so, you know that faulty memory is not a sufficient excuse to escape the late-payment fine.

Why does prospective memory fail? To begin to answer this question, I find it useful to adopt a distinction first proposed by the psychologists Gilles Einstein and Mark McDaniel. They distinguish between “event-based” and “time-based” prospective memory. Event-based prospective memory involves remembering to carry out a task when a specific event occurs. If your friend Frank says, “When you see Harry at the office today, tell him to call me,” Frank is asking you to remember to perform a particular action (tell Harry to call me) when a specific event occurs (you see Harry at the office). Time-based prospective memory, in contrast, involves remembering to carry out an action at a specific time in the future. Remembering to take the cookies out of the oven in twenty minutes or remembering to take your medicine at 11:00 P.M. are examples of time-based prospective memory tasks.

38 // remembering what you want to do

Event and Time–Based Tasks Forgetting can occur for different reasons when we are faced with event-based and time-based prospective memory tasks. In event-based tasks, problems occur if the event that is designated to trigger recall of the intended action fails to do so: if, for instance, we see Harry in the office and are not reminded to tell him to call Frank. In time-based tasks, by contrast, problems usually arise because we fail to encounter or generate a cue that can remind us to carry out the target action. When faced with the task of remembering to take medicine at 11:00 P.M., either I must spontaneously remember to do so at 11:00 P.M., or think ahead and arrange cues that will likely trigger recall at the right time. Knowing that I am likely to be brushing my teeth before bed at 11:00 P.M., for example, I might place the medicine in a spot by the sink where I can’t miss it. From this perspective, event-based prospective memory requires understanding of why cues or hints do or do not spontaneously trigger recall of an intended action; time-based prospective memory requires understanding of how we generate cues that will help us to remember at a later time. Frank has asked you to tell Harry to call him, but you have forgotten to do so. You indeed saw Harry in the office, but instead of remembering Frank’s message you were reminded of the bet you and Harry made concerning last night’s college basketball championship, gloating for several minutes over your victory before settling down to work.

39 // Understanding absentmindedness

pull the trigger Do you have

medication you keep forgetting to take in the morning? Don’t put the strain on your brain; instead, make this time-based task an event-based task that will trigger your memory by putting your pillbox in the bathroom where you won’t miss it.

When Frank later asks you what happened with Harry, you apologize profusely and wonder out loud whether something has gone terribly wrong with your memory. In all likelihood, nothing is wrong. Prospective memory failed because Harry is a potential reminder of many things other than the message to call Frank. The best prospective memory triggers tend to be highly distinctive cues that have few other associations in long-term memory, and hence are not likely to remind us of irrelevant information. Experiments by Gilles Einstein and Mark McDaniel use a simple laboratory analogue of event-based prospective memory demands—thinking about what we said, or didn’t say, at this morning’s meeting when we encounter that associate. Some of the frontal regions that contribute to successful prospective remembering may be tied up by our internal monologue, and thus do not play their usual role in enabling prospective recall. This could result in a failure to be reminded by a cue to carry out an intended action. Stressed-out baby boomers who worry that each new absentminded memory slip signals the onset of age-related cognitive decline, or perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease, should take comfort in the fi nding that prospective cues frequently fail to trigger recall of appropriate actions when people are preoccupied with attention-consuming matters. The source of the worried boomers’ difficulties may well lie in the multitude of competing professional and personal concerns that absorb mental energy and can reduce the effectiveness of reminders to carry out mundane but necessary everyday tasks.

40 // remembering What yoU Want to Do

Indeed, several laboratory studies have shown that older adults who have reached their sixties and seventies perform almost as well as younger adults on event-based prospective memory tasks. When given cues that remind them to carry out a target task, older adults have little problem remembering what to do. For example, in laboratory studies by Einstein and McDaniel, older and younger adults were instructed to remember to press a key after ten and twenty minutes had passed; a clock was positioned behind the subjects to help them keep track of time. In this time-based task, older adults forgot to press the key more often than did younger. With no cue available to trigger recall of the target action, older adults were less likely than younger adults to summon up the action on their own. This finding fits well with other data indicating that self-initiated recall is a difficult task for older adults, probably because it requires extensive cognitive resources that decline with age. Older adults can, however, perform well on timebased prospective memory tasks by taking steps to convert them into event-based tasks, that is, by generating cues that will be available at the appropriate time to trigger recall of what must be done. When asked by an experimenter to make a phone call at a specified time, some older adults changed the time-based task to an event-based task by linking it with an incident in their daily lives that occurred when the call had to be made. For example, one participant placed a reminder note to make the call next to where she washed dishes and another tied in the phone call with a morning coffee.

41 // Understanding absentmindedness

Memory so heavily depends on the availability of cues that trigger intended actions, the most effective way to counter absentminded prospective memory failures is to develop an effective external memory aid.

These findings have implications for such important everyday prospective memory tasks such as taking medications. Many older adults need multiple medications, and taking them at the right time is crucial for their health. Surveys suggest that between one-third and one-half of elderly adults do not adhere to their medication schedules. Direct observations indicate that such problems are mainly characteristic of people in their seventies and eighties; young” old adults (in their sixties) generally adhere well to medication schedules. As noted earlier, remembering to take medication at 11:00 P.M. is a time-based task, but it can be converted to an event-based task by, say, placing the needed medications next to one’s toothbrush, and regularly brushing one’s teeth before retiring at 11:00 P.M. Many factors contribute to poor medication adherence, but improvements can be realized by arranging cues that convert this timebased task to an event-based task. Perhaps even more than event-based prospective memory, time-based prospective memory often fails because people are preoccupied with other concerns that prevent them from even attempting to generate appropriate retrieval cues. In the study that required participants to make a phone call at a particular time, the most common reasons they gave for failing to do so were that they were absorbed” or “distracted.”

How do triggers work? Unfortunately, we often merely admonish ourselves to remember to carry out a task at a future time, rather than generating concrete cues or reminders that will help to do so.

42 // remembering what you want to do


Event triggers recall



Cue triggers recall

Sitting at a desk in your home office, you tell yourself earnestly, “OK, don’t forget to mail that credit card payment tomorrow morning.” But unless you convert this time-based task to an event-based task by generating a reminder, such as putting the bill in a place where you will see it when you leave for work the next morning, the bill will likely remain unsent on top of your desk. Memory so heavily depends on the availability of cues that trigger intended actions, the most effective way to counter absentminded prospective memory failures is to develop an effective external memory aid. The most effective such cues pass two key criteria considered earlier: they are sufficiently informative, and are available at the time an action needs forming. The quintessential external memory aid—a string tied around one’s finger—passes the latter of these two criteria, but not the former. Tying a string around a finger is potentially helpful became it’s always visible. But that strategy is vulnerable to the same kind of problems that frustrated the secretary who puzzled over what she meant by the reminder saying only “Nat”: it is easy to forget what a string around the finger means. Even if we do write down sufficiently detailed notes to remind me of what we intend to do, we still must find a way to ensure that they are available around the time the action is to be performed.

43 // Understanding absentmindedness

Sticky-pad notes hidden in our pockets or a notebook that we never look at may contain all the necessary details but will not solve problems unless they are consulted. Many effective everyday memory cues that we take for granted meet the two key criteria of informativeness and availability at the time of retrieval. A whistling teakettle, for instance, reminds you of exactly what you need to do at the time you need to do it. Likewise, some electronic irons come with a built-in prospective memory cue, sounding an alarm when left face-down for too long. Even more sophisticated electronic devices are now available to help us record and plan our future actions. A survey conducted in the early 1990s identified thirty different kind of external memory aid that were then available commercially, and the list has no doubt grown longer during the past decade. Interestingly, there were variations in the perceived meaningfulness of different types of external aid as a function of age and lifestyle.

44 // remembering what you want to do

Note tucked away in notebook


String tied around finger



What makes an effective trigger?

Young adults in their teens and twenties tended to be most interested in “high-tech” reminders such as electronic dam Seat belt alarm that can be used at school or on the job. Middle-aged adults with families viewed products that reduce forgetting of tasks around the home, such as the “memory iron,” as particularly helpful. And older, mainly retired adults were interested in products that help to execute routine daily tasks at home and elsewhere, such as an electronic “plant reminder” that is inserted into soil and soot and sounded a reminder when the plant needed to be watered. •

45 // Understanding absentmindedness

Slips of Action distraction and action slips in an everyday task : evidence for a dynamic representation of task context, matthew m . botvinick and lauren bylsma , psychonomic bulletin and review

Slips of action are another type of absentminded memory error that often occur at decision points, junctures where selection of the appropriate action cannot be accomplished solely on the basis of the immediately preceding action or the state of the environment but, instead, relies on accessing information about the broader task context, including earlier actions and previously established goals.


Influential theories concerning the origins of action slips have been proposed by Norman (1981) and Reason (1990; Reason & Mycielska, 1982). One important observation shared by both of these accounts is that slips of action often occur at decision points, junctures where selection of the appropriate action cannot be accomplished solely on the basis of the immediately preceding action or the state of the environment but, instead, relies on accessing information about the broader task context, including earlier actions and previously established goals.

An example of such a decision point can be drawn from the familiar

task of preparing coffee with cream and sugar. In this task, as in many others, decision points occur at the transitions between subtasks—in particular, the transition points coming at the end of cream adding and sugar adding. Consider, for illustration, the situation at the end of cream adding. The correct next action here depends on whether sugar has or has not already been added. If it has not, the appropriate next step is to locate the sugar and to begin the procedure for adding it to the coffee. If sugar has been added, the task is complete, and another activity, such as drinking the coffee, may begin. Selecting the correct action at this decision point thus requires accessing information about actions already completed or goals already accomplished.

According to Reason (1992), the demands of action selection at

these points require the actor to enter a special attentional mode. Norman (1981) makes a similar proposal, referring to these junctures as “attentional checkpoints.”

47 // Understanding absentmindedness

very absentmInded persons In goIng to theIr bedroom to dress for dInner have been known to take off one garment after the other and fInally to get In bed. william james, american psychologist and philosopher

task 1

task 2


go upstairs

go to bedroom

go to bedroom

take off garment a take off garment b take off garment c

take off garment a take off garment b take off garment c

get in bed attentional lapse put on garment D put on garment e

go downstairs for dinner two tasks that share a similar sequence of actions have the potential to get mixed up. this type of slip is known as the capture phenomenon.


go upstairs

Decision points

a point occurs between subactions of a task. at this moment you either move on to the next subaction in the sequence or make a decision to perform a different set subactions.


get in bed

Slips of Action: General Principles Distraction

Slips tend to occur under conditions of distraction or preoccupation. branch points

Slips tend to occur at branch points or decision points, junctures at which the immediately preceding actions and/or the environmental context bear associations with different subsequent actions. intact and Familiar

Rather than involving bizarre or disorganized action sequences, slips tend to take the form of a familiar and intact sequence, ordinarily performed in a different but related context lapsing into habit

Slips involving lapses from one task into another tend to refl ect the relative frequency of the two tasks. Specifi cally, lapses tend to involve a shift from a less frequently performed task into one more frequently performed capture phenomenon

Lapses from one task into another tend to occur just after a series of actions that the two tasks share.

49 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

You feel thirsty.

You would like some tea.

An introduction to the action sequence doing without schema hierarchies : a recurrent connectionist approach to normal and impaired routine sequential action,

matthew botvinivk and david c . plaut, psychological review

An essential point concerning the sequential structure of routine tasks was made early on by Lashley (1951). His aim was to point out the insufficiency of then current associationist accounts of sequencing, which characterized serial behavior as a chain of simple links between each action and the next. Lashley noted that because individual actions can appear in a variety of contexts, any given action may be associated with more than one subsequent action. In addition to representations of individual actions, the actor must also have access to a broader representation of temporal context, a “schema� that somehow encodes the overall structure of the intended action sequence.

50 // remembering what you want to do


Decision point

Schema activation

You TEA decide to go to the PUT TEA IN POT MAKE kitchen to make a pot

DRINK TEA Walk dog

Get teapot

Get tea

Or do you?


Fill kettle

Get crackers Turn on stove

Put tea back

Leave stove off

*kettle whistles

Turn off stove



51 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness



Here comes your canine friend!

52 // Understanding absentmindedness

Decision point

Schema activation




DRINK TEA Walk dog

Get teapot

Get tea

Get crackers

Suddenly, you decide to take your dog for a walk.

Put tea back



When you return you get back on track, wary not to make more errors. the following pages outline how different slips can occur during a seemingly simple action.

This is what the action sequence might look like.

53 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

Decision point



MAKE TEA Walk dog

Get teapot

Get tea



Fill kettle

Remove kettle

Locate teapot

Get crackers Turn on stove

Put tea back

Leave stove off

Pour hot water in pot

*kettle whistles

Turn off stove

Steep teabag

Pour hot water


Sequencing errors




Occurs when the sequence comes from a different, usually related, task.

Involves skipping over a subroutine to execute a sequence from later in the same task.

54 // remembering what you want to do



Locate mug

Pick up pot

Move pot to mug

Tilt until pour

Pick up creamer



Locate creamer

Locate honey

Pick up mug

Pick up creamer

Pick up honey

Pour creamer

Move to mug

Put down creamer

Tilt to pour

Return pot



Open cap

Pour honey

Pick up spoon

Pick up spoon



Put down spoon

Put down spoon

OMISSION Close cap

Occurs when two tasks in the sequence are reversed.


55 // Understanding absentmindedness

Put to lips

Drink tea


56 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

allowIng the mInd to roam freely can aId creatIvIty...but only If we pay attentIon to the content of our daydreams. josie glausiusZ , scientiFic american

ADVANTAGES Of AbSENTmINDEDNESS the seven sins oF memory, daniel schacter

When Joseph Tsien and his group published their ground breaking study of genetically engineered memory improvements in mice, the media were awash in speculations about high-tech drugs that might put an end to forgetting altogether. But just as 1999 National Memory Champion Tatiana Cooley still forgets to do things and struggles to overcome her absentminded memory failures, there is likewise no guarantee that any future drugs that combat transience would also reduce absentmindedness. As Cooley discovered, however, combating absentmindedness does not require genetic interventions: the Post-its that she relies on, or other more sophisticated external memory aids, are adequate remedies when used effectively. Absentmindedness is troublesome for many individuals who are perpetually trying to balance multiple tasks and must therefore constantly organize future actions.

57 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

the InabIlIty to focus helps ensure a rIcher mIxture of thoughts In conscIousness. because these people struggled to fIlter the world, they ended up lettIng everythIng In. they couldn’t help but be open-mInded. jonah lehrer , author and journalist, the wall street Journal

The benefits of Not Paying Attention bother me , i ’ m thinking, jonah lehrer , the wall street Journal

We live in a time that worships attention. When we need to work, we force ourselves to focus, to stare straight ahead at the computer screen. There’s a Starbucks on seemingly every corner—caffeine makes it easier to concentrate—and when coffee isn’t enough, we chug Red Bull. In fact, the ability to pay attention is considered such an essential life skill that the lack of it has become a widespread medical problem. Nearly 10% of American children are now diagnosed with attention-defi cit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In recent years, however, scientists have begun to outline the surprising benefits of not paying attention. Sometimes, too much focus can backfi re; all that caffeine gets in the way. For instance, researchers have found a surprising link between daydreaming and creativity— people who daydream more are also better at generating new ideas. Other studies have found that employees are more productive when they’re allowed to engage in “Internet leisure browsing” and that people unable to concentrate due to severe brain damage actually score above average on various problem-solving tasks. A new study led by researchers at the University of Memphis and the University of Michigan extends this theme. The scientists measured the success of 60 undergraduates in various fi elds, from the visual arts to science. They asked the students if they’d ever won a prize at a juried art show or been honored at a science fair. In every domain, students who had been diagnosed with attention-defi cit disorder achieved more: Their inability to focus turned out to be a creative advantage. And this lesson doesn’t just apply to people with a full-fl edged disorder. A few years ago, scientists at the University of Toronto and Harvard gave a short mental test to 86 Harvard undergraduates. The test was designed to measure their ability to ignore irrelevant stimuli, such as the air-conditioner humming in the background or the conversation taking place nearby.

58 // aDvantages oF absentminDeDness

According to one survey, most people spend about 30% of their waking hours spacing out, drifting off, or lost in thought.


59 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness


when you are stressed you do not encoDe information as well as when you are calm.

This skill is typically seen as an essential component of productivity, since it keeps people from getting distracted by extraneous information.

Here’s where the data get interesting: Those undergrads who had a

tougher time ignoring unrelated stuff were also seven times more likely to be rated as “eminent creative achievers” based on their previous accomplishments. (The association was particularly strong among distractible students with high IQs.) According to the scientists, the inability to focus helps ensure a richer mixture of thoughts in consciousness. Because these people struggled to filter the world, they ended up letting everything in.

They couldn’t help but be open-minded. Such lapses in attention

turn out to be a crucial creative skill. When we’re faced with a difficult problem, the most obvious solution—that first idea we focus on—is probably wrong. At such moments, it often helps to consider far-fetched possibilities, to approach the task from an unconventional perspective. And this is why distraction is helpful: People unable to focus are more likely to consider information that might seem irrelevant but will later inspire the breakthrough. When we don’t know where to look, we need to look everywhere.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that attention isn’t an important

mental skill, or that attention-deficit disorders aren’t a serious problem. There’s clearly nothing advantageous about struggling in the classroom, or not being able to follow instructions. (It’s also worth pointing out that these studies all involve college students, which doesn’t tell us anything about those kids with ADHD who fail to graduate from high school. Distraction might be a cognitive luxury that not everyone can afford.) Nevertheless, this new research demonstrates that, for a certain segment of the population, distractibility can actually be a net positive. Although we think that more attention can solve everything—that the best strategy is always a strict focus fueled by triple espressos—that’s not the case. Sometimes, the most productive thing we can do is surf the Web and eavesdrop on that conversation next door.

60 //advantages ofabsentmindedness

Tips for the Absentminded The following section consists of tips to help improve your working memory and to help ease the stress of absentminded forgetting.

How do you remember things you have to do? stress, anxiety, and memory, successfulaging. ca

Appointments can include anything that you need to do on a given day. To remember: Write them in a calendar that you keep in a place that you look at often, say, on the kitchen fridge. Write them in your appointment book. Get into the habit of checking your calendar and appointment regularly, at least several times each day. Check items off when you have done them. This will help you keep track of what you’ve done and what you still have to do, and will give you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction

Remembering where you put things It is not uncommon to misplace your glasses or keys. However, you can avoid this problem if you have a regular place for everything that you use on a regular basis. For example, if you have a special spot for your keys or your purse, take a few seconds when you come in the door to put those items in their respective places, so they are easier to find the next time. If you are in a unfamiliar place, be alert to where you put something down, where you parked the car, or which entrance you came in. Use a mental image to link the item, to the location to facilitate recall.

61 // Understanding absentmindedness

When we see humor in our faults, stress often melts away. So go ahead and chuckle when you grab the ice cream spoon and point it at the TV to change the channel, or you suddenly notice urinals on the wall of the ladies room. Laughter is a gift we can give to family, friends, and ourselves every day. sandy maynard, adhd consultant, additude magazine

Memory and stress

When you are stressed out and feeling anxious, you will probably notice that you have a hard time learning new things and a hard time remembering. Why does this happen? When you are anxious and stressed you have decreased concentration and attention and do not encode information as well as when you are calm. In other words, the information doesn’t get in! When you are distracted, you also have a hard time retrieving information from storage.

Be a Comedian laugh it off : bouncing back from adult adhd flubs , sandy maynard, additude magazine

One of my clients, Ross, uses humor to deal with his imperfections. He has worked hard at taming the paper monster in his home. Every day he diligently sorts through the mail, putting things in piles: bills, recycling, shredding. When I recently asked him how it was going, he grinned and said, “Fantastic! I’m like a crazed FedEx delivery man who worships recycling and filing — not a scrap of junk mail to be found. There’s just one glitch. Yesterday I came in with a stack of mail, and it disappeared. I looked all over and finally gave up. It was my night to cook, so I decided to start dinner. I opened the fridge to reach for the cheese and spinach, and there was the mail, hiding. The bills were happy — they got to go to the desk and get paid — but the junk mail was really ticked off. It prefers lollygagging around on the dining room table. I showed no mercy; I recycled every bit of it. The credit card solicitations cursed me. For them, it was the dreaded shredder. I am, after all, a man on a mission!”

62 // advantages of absentmindedness

Ross’s stories are always funny. In telling them, he accepts the brain freeze we all experience from time to time, no matter how aggressively we try to manage our ADHD. More important, Ross’s humor helps him maintain a healthy perspective about himself, his work, his family, and his life. Ross’s wife gets frustrated with his forgetfulness, but she treasures his lighthearted kindness. She smiles like a schoolgirl when she says that there hasn’t been a day in their seven-year marriage that her husband hasn’t brought light moments to their lives. making faces in the mirror is an

Exercise Wisely

excellent way to

get smarter : 12 hacks that will amp up your brainpower ,

distract oneself

brian knopper , wired

Aerobic Training Don’t cut that PE class! In 2006, Arthur Kramer of the University of Illinois used MRIs to prove that aerobic exercise builds gray and white matter in the brains of older adults. Lifting Weights When weight lifters talk about getting huge, they aren’t referring to their hippocampus. Researchers have found only the most tenuous link between heavy resistance training and improved cognitive function. Yoga When facing a stressful situation or even a scary e–mail, people often hold their breath. Yoga can break that habit. Under pressure, “most people breathe incorrectly,” says Frank Lawlis, a fellow of the American Psychological Association and author of The IQ Answer. The result: more stress and less oxygen to your brain. “So the fi rst thing that goes is your memory.”

63 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

according to Frank lawlis, a fellow of the american psychological association, most people don’t breathe correctly. meditation is another good way to relax your breath and increase those feel-good brain waves.

Caffeinate With Care Caffeine jump-starts the body and sharpens the mind. But studies suggest that we Yanks are doing it wrong. For optimal brain gain, regular tea breaks, as favored in the UK, are more effective than a 20-ounce French roast sucked down at Starbucks in lieu of breakfast. Throughout the day, your noodle fi lls up with adenosine, a chemical thought to cause mental fatigue. Caffeine blocks the brain’s adenosine receptors, countering the chemical’s dulling effects. To maximize alertness and minimize jitters, keep those receptors covered with frequent small doses — like a mug of low-caf tea or half a cup of joe — rather than a onetime blast. Test subjects reported that periodic small shots made them feel clearheaded and calm, both of which enhance mental performance. Even better, add a lump of sugar or have a carbohydrate-rich snack at the same time for an extra cognitive kick. It seems that glucose and caffeine together do more to enhance cognition than either does alone. Biscotti, anyone?

Do Some Drugs Brains + drugs = fried eggs, right? Not always. Some pills can boost your cognitive output. But we at Wired aren’t doctors. Anyone who takes a bushel of drugs based on our say-so must be high. Turn the page for a table of drugs, what they do, their side effects, and where you can get them.

64 // aDvantages oF absentminDeDness


Nausea, diarrhea, fainting


Anxiety, agitation, insomnia, dizziness, epigastric heaviness (feeling full)

Seems to boost release of glutamate, speeding neurotransmission and improving memory. Not a ton of evidence, though.


Addiction, headaches, insomnia, Tourette’s-like symptoms, heart attack

Thought to optimize levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, enhancing concentration and turning mundane tasks into wondrous ones.

Alzheimer’s drug that may also enhance memory in healthy adults. Thought to reduce the breakdown of a neurotransmitter that helps relay messages around the brain.


Possible Side Effects

Triggers the release of dopamine. Can increase concentration and creative output. Prolonged use can also make you stupid and crazy.

Parkinson’s-like symptoms, addiction, stroke, psychosis, death


What it does

A narcolepsy medication that improves focus, pattern recognition, and short-term memory. The exact mechanism of action is unclear. Good for card counters.

Chest pain, nausea, headache, life-threatening rash



Spurs faster interaction between nerve cells in the brain, aiding memory formation and attention.

Addiction, cancer, social isolation (depending on delivery mechanism)

How to get it Order Online Buy from manufacturer Tap black market Fake Illness Hit Drugstore

65 // Understanding absentmindedness

That is all.

66 // Understanding absentmindedness

Final Words from Daniel Schacter The psychologist Elle Langer has pointed out that when we misplace our car keys or eyeglasses, it is usually because we are devoting our mental resources to more important things: wrestling with a personal dilemma or thinking about how to handle an upcoming meeting at work. Are there also absentminded mice, preoccupied with pressing concerns that lead to automatic behaviors and associated forgetting? Might there be a specific gene responsible that could help to overcome such memory failures? If one exists, would we want to make me of it? These are intriguing questions without clear answers. But I suspect that for the foreseeable future, cognitive engineers, not genetic engineers, will lead the way forward in efforts to combat absentmindedness.

67 // Understanding absentmindedness

Something missing I remember I put on my socks, I remember I put on my shoes. I remember I put on my tie

if shel silverstein understood absentmindedness, perhaps he would have remembered his pants.

That was painted In beautiful purples and blues. I remember I put on my coat, To look perfectly grand at the dance, Yet I feel there is something I may have forgotWhat is it? What is it? . . . shel silverstein, a light in the attic

68 // UnDerstanDing absentminDeDness

Sources consulted “Apertures, Draw, and Syntax: Remodeling Attention.” Effortless Attention: A New Perspective in the Cognitive Science of Attention and Action. Ed. Brian Bruya. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010. 219-43.

Belanger Grafton, Carol, ed. Victorian Goods and Merchandise: 2,300 Illustrations. New York: Dover Publications, 1997. Botvinick, Matthew, and David C. Plaut. “Doing Without Schema Hierarchies: A Recurrent Connectionist Approach to Normal and Impaired Routine Sequential Action.” Psychological Review 111.2 (2004): 395-429.

Botvinick, Matthew M., and Lauren M. Bylsma. “Distraction and Action Slips in an Everyday Task: Evidence for a Dynamic Representation of Task Context.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 12.6 (2005):1011-017.

Cohen, Gillian. “Memory for Intentions, Actions, and Plans.” Memory inthe Real World. 2nd ed. East Sussex, UK: Psychology, 1996.

De Young, Raymond. “Using the Stroop Effect to Test Our Capacity to Direct Attention.” Environment Psychology Lab. School of Natural Resourcesand Environment University of Michigan. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. accessed at: http:/

Dickinson, Emily. “The Lost Thought.” The Literature Network. Jalic Inc. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. accessed at: http://www. Harter, Jim. Harter’s Picture Archive for Collage and Illustration: Over 300 19th-century Cuts. New York: Dover Publications, 1978.

Harter, Jim. Men, a Pictorial Archive from Nineteenth-century Sources: 412 Copyright-free Illustrations for Artists and Designers. New York: Dover Publications, 1980.

Harter, Jim. Women: A Pictorial Archive from Nineteenth-century Sources. New York: Dover, 1982.

Knopper, Steve. “Get Smarter: 12 Hacks That Will Amp Up Your Brainpower.” Wired Magazine May 2008. Conde Nast Digital, 21 Apr. 2008. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. accessed at: http://www. medtech/health/ magazine/16-05/gs_intro.

Lakehead University. “Stress and Memory.” Successful Aging Home Page. Manulife Financial, The Government of Onterio. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. accessed at: http:// memory/19.html.

Lehrer, Jonah. “Bother Me, I’m Thinking: Why You Should Drop That Espresso and Bounce a Ball Instead.” Editorial. The Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal, 19 Feb. 2011. Web. 4 Feb. 2012. accessed at :

Maynard, Sandy. “Laugh It Off: Bouncing Back from Adult ADHD Flubs.” ADDitude Magazine. New Hope Media LLC, 2008. Web. 12 Apr. 2012. accessed at: http://www article/4768.html.

Schacter, Daniel L. “The Sin of Absent-mindedness.” The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Silverstein, Shel. “Something Missing.” A Light in the Attic. New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1981. 26.

Simons DJ, Chabris CF (2011) What People Believe about How Memory Works: A Representative Survey of the U.S. Population. PLoS ONE 6(8): e22757. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0022757.

69 // Understanding absentmindedness

the Colophon the designer

This book was designed by Alissa Millenson for her senior seminar project in spring of 2012 at Washington University in St. Louis – Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. Alissa will graduate from Washington University with a dual degree in Anthropology and Communication Design in May, 2012. Alissa has been described as scatterbrained but would like to point to this book as evidence to the contrary.

The production

This book was set in DIN, DINEngschrift, and ITC Officina Serif and designed using Adobe InDesign CS5. Images were taken from the Dover Pictorial Archive Series.Printed on a digital laser printer on Cougar 80-lb. natural white paper, this book was hand-bound and is limited to five copies.


Alissa would like to thank the faculty in the Communication Design department, her studiomates, her friends and her family for their continued support, inspiration, and good humor. For permission to reproduce this book or for more information please contact Alissa at

edited and designed by

Alissa Millenson

For those of us who grapple w ith absentmindedness this book clearly expla ins what is happening in our bra ins and w ill spark a l ively d iscussion about how and what we remember and how and why we of ten forget.

Understanding Absentmindedness  

with main text by Daniel Schacter

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