26 July 2009


It often happens, I boil the kettle, make a cup of tea and then forget to drink it. However, I am not alone, according to research carried out by The National-Lottery, every day exactly the same thing happens to around 15 million of us while a similar number of us will forget where they put their car keys. Apparently, the average Briton forgets three such things each and every day, with the most worrying (according to the research) being to buy a lottery ticket!

Obviously the purpose of the research was to promote the National Lottery, but it raises an interesting question: Since our brains are so amazing at remembering vast amounts of information, why do we forget simple things?

Some scientists believe that the answer lies in the differences between your short-term working memory and your long-term memory. It is known that the two are different and that your short-term memory is somewhat transient. This is why some brain-damaged patients can suffer from a condition where they are unable to create any new memories. In these cases their memory will be intact up to the time when the brain injury took place, but they will have no memories from that time onwards.

Another theory is that our memory works on associations. For example, if you show people pictures of a part of an object, such as the end of a settee, they generally have no difficulty in identifying what the object is. Scientists have discovered that we remember the details of literally thousands of objects when shown part pictures in this way because our memory works on associations – by being shown a bit of an object, our brain instantly recalls all the rest of the information necessary to reconstruct the whole object. However, although the brain contains detailed representations of lots of different events and objects, our memory performs much less well when we attempt to remember things spontaneously. The reason is that it doesn’t have the associations to work from. If you want to remember where you put your keys, you therefore need to be consciously aware of them when you put them down – easier said than done!

This brings me on to the last reason why we might forget small things – it is because we were not really aware of them in the first place. Some months ago I lost our home telephone. I tried paging it and I searched high and low, all to no avail, and I ended up having to buy a new one. Some months later I found it – in the garage! I must have been in the middle of something with the phone in my hand when I needed my hand for something else. My brain helpfully would have known that I could not hold two things at once so it subconsciously instructed my hand to put it down.

Because our brains can only consciously process around seven pieces of information at any one time, they have become brilliant at dealing with everything else subconsciously. For example, most of us will have had the experience of not being able to remember the journey home from work even though we managed to drive perfectly safely.

The reason we forget trivial things therefore is because our brains prioritise. I forget to drink my tea because I am concentrating on something else, I lost the phone because I was trying to do too many things at once and I forget the journey home from work because I know the route so well that I don’t have to think about it.

Brilliant things brains!

What are the things you forget?

1 comment:

  1. I lost my glasses today - and found them in the dishwasher - Worrying!


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