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Why Did I Forget?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

This morning I walked with great purpose and determination into kitchen. I had to get it done! I paused, very puzzled. Get what done? I know there was something I wanted to do…wasn’t there? Feeling very confused and frustrated, I gave up trying to figure it out and went about my day. Only later, during the afternoon, did it suddenly pop into my head: I wanted to add an item to the shopping list posted on the refrigerator. When I told my wife, later that evening, she laughed and told me it happens to her all the time.

Another variation of this type of forgetting can happen when you are planning to go shopping at the supermarket. You listed all the items you need to purchase and set out for the store. Once there, you enter the store, reach into your pocket for the list and suddenly realize that you forgot to take the list with you. You try to remember the things you needed to buy but really cannot recall them. Instead of returning home for the list, you go about choosing items that you commonly need and hope that you have covered everything. Once you get home with the groceries, unpack them and look at the list, you realize that you bought many items you do not need, already have with only a few of the ones you wanted.

This is a very common form of forgetting. The trouble is that people find it annoying and exasperating because it prevents them from completing a task, not to mention the fact that most of us feel very foolish when this happens. Everyone jokes about it attributing this to anything from, “Ooops, I must be getting Alzheimer’s, to, “I am really dumb and getting dumber.” Despite all of these jokes, what is really happening when this type of forgetting occurs?

As it turns out, the forgetting as a result of going through a doorway, and I am not jesting about this.

Gabriel Radvansky, Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, explains in a recent article of his that:

“Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an ‘event boundary’ in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away.”

“Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalized.”

In other words, the task you wanted to complete was thought of in one room. A memory boundary is set up so that it will not be remembered once that boundary is crossed. This is somewhat similar to what happens when someone greets you warmly but you cannot remember who this person is. The individual asks you about your parents and childhood and what fun you had as children. As you think about childhood, you begin an exploration of memories stored in your mind. That exploration is not random. Rather, as you reach into your memory, you reconstruct the neighborhood you lived in and who your friends were at the time. With the context of that time reconstructed, it suddenly flashes through your mind that this indeed is your childhood playmate who you haven’t seen since she moved away when you were both twelve years old.

Professor Radvansky reports that attempting to remember something forgotten due to the event boundary will not be recovered even if you return to the room in which you first thought of the task.

So, what can you do about this? Professor Radvansky suggests that, once you know you want to do something, write it down before entering the next room because crossing that doorway increases the likelihood that forgetting will occur.

What I find interesting about this is that, once having listed this task on a piece of paper that I carry with me and, upon entering the next room, not only do I forget but, knowing I have that note seems to melt the boundary away as the task is remembered before I get to the note.

My advice is that you make a list of the things you need to do. Carry that list with you so that you can refer to it when necessary.

But remember, do not forget the list and most certainly, do not forget to make the list.

Your comments and questions are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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