Everyday Problems

Forgetting to do things

Forgetting future tasks and events is the most common type of memory failure

Older adults are in general no worse at this type of remembering than younger adults

Older adults may have more difficulty at remembering to do actions at particular times

Older adults also need to make more effort in situations when an action cannot be performed immediately, but must be held in memory for a brief period.

The other day I was sitting in the sunshine in my living room going through some journal articles I'd photocopied. I realized I needed to staple the pages together and went down to my study to get the stapler. Approaching my desk, I decided to check my email while I was there. And then, I decided to check my library account online to see whether a book I had requested had turned up. When I'd done that, I went back upstairs to my papers. Where I realized, of course, that I'd forgotten the stapler.

This type of memory failure — going to do something, getting sidetracked, doing something else and forgetting the original task — is familiar to all of us. As are everyday memory failures like forgetting to put the garbage out; forgetting to take medication at the right time; forgetting a dentist appointment (although there's more than one reason for that!).

This type of memory failure — forgetting the future, as it were — is a failure of a type of memory called prospective memory, and it is probably the most common type of memory failure older adults suffer from. And probably the biggest concern.

It's a concern because it's a failure of memory that has consequences, and those consequences are often not only obvious to ourselves, but also to others. Which makes us feel worse, of course.

But it's not just a matter of being embarrassed. Older adults are particularly vulnerable to thoughts that they are "losing" their memory — and the fear of Alzheimer's lurks in all of us.

So, should you be worried if you forget what you're doing?

Like other types of forgetting or absent-mindedness, it depends on the degree of your forgetfulness. But prospective memory failure is common among older adults for a very good reason. Not because it's a precursor of cognitive impairment, but because it's the most common type of memory failure for everyone.

In fact, older adults in general are no worse than anyone else in this particular memory domain, although they may worry about it more (because they worry about any memory failure more).

In some aspects of prospective memory, older adults are actually better than younger adults! One reason for this is that they are more likely to use memory aids — like writing down reminders, or putting reminder objects in strategic places — to help them remember.

However, it does seem that older adults may do less well at remembering things that have to be done at particular times, and one reason for this seems to be that they tend to be poorer at monitoring time. In these cases, it's therefore a good idea to use timers as reminders.

Older adults also seem to have more trouble in the situation when a remembered intention cannot be performed immediately, but must be held in memory for a brief period. Even 5-10 seconds is too long! Tasks that you are "just about" to perform, but in fact are not doing that very second (because you have some other intervening task to do first) are probably particularly dangerous because you don't feel a need to make an effort to remember them (because you are "just about" to do it). But without rehearsal, information falls out of working memory (the stuff we're holding in the conscious "forefront" of our mind) in seconds. So you do need to make an effort. And often, that's all it needs.

You can read more about planning memory strategies in my ebook on planning memory.

You can download a free extract (pdf).

I have also extracted the 20-item questionnaire about performance on remembering particular types of intention, designed to help you get a better idea of your present performance on intention memory tasks, and to establish those specific tasks you most wish to improve. The quiz is in printable format.

Word-finding problems

It is normal for word-finding problems to increase as we age

It is normal for us to be slower in processing information as we age

Difficulty in retrieving words does not mean the words are lost; there is no evidence that we lose vocabulary in normal aging

There is little evidence for any change in semantic structure (the organization of words in memory) with age

Older adults probably have more trouble dealing with large amounts of information

Older adults may develop different strategies as they age, probably to accommodate their decline in processing speed and processing capacity

What do we mean by word-finding problems?

Here are some examples:

  • increasing use of circumlocutions rather than specific terms (e.g., "I wonder where the thing that goes here is")
  • use of empty phrases, indefinite terms, and pronouns without antecedents (i.e., referring to something or someone as "it" or "him / her" without first identifying them by name)
  • increased frequency of pauses

These problems are all characteristic of Alzheimer's, but also, to a much lesser extent, of normal aging.

Verbal fluency declines with age

Verbal fluency is measured by how many words fitting a specific criteria you can generate in a fixed time (for example, how many types of fruit you can list in a minute).

Verbal fluency often (but not always) declines as we age. This may be partly because older adults are slower to access information.

Tip-of-the-tongue experiences increase with age

There is no evidence that normal older adults actually lose the meanings of words they know.

Older adults do however have more word-finding problems than younger adults. In particular, as we get older we tend to experience more experiences when the word we are searching for is "on the tip of my tongue" [1]. (For more detail about this, see the research report at Burke 1991)

Picture-naming errors also increase, though not perhaps until the eighties [2].

Some studies have found a decline in older adults’ ability to produce words when given their definitions, but others haven’t. This may relate to strategy differences.

No structural changes to memory in normal aging

So, older adults do show some of the same type of word-finding problems as Alzheimers patients do, but to a considerably smaller degree. There is little evidence however that this decline is due to any structural changes in semantic memory with age. Normal younger and older adults give the same sort of responses. (Alzheimers patients on the other hand, become more eccentric in their word associations).

Older adults may tend to use different memory strategies than younger adults

While older adults are slower to make category judgments (e.g., "Is a tomato a fruit? True or false"), they do not give responses different from those of younger adults, supporting the view that semantic organization hasn't changed. However, there is some evidence that young and old differ in the way they judge similarity (older adults seem to rely more on distinctive features; younger adults use both common and distinctive features). This may however be due to strategy differences.

There is no evidence for any decline in prose comprehension with age. However, when there is a large load on memory (when the text is complex, for example), older adults find retrieving general knowledge more difficult.

It appears that encoding of new information might become less context-specific with age, but this may only relate to particular types of context information. It might only be that older adults are less inclined to attend to such (largely irrelevant) details as: whether something was printed in upper or lower case; the sex of a speaker; the color in which a word is printed. The temporal and spatial contexts are also likely to be less important. In other words, older adults seem to encode less information about the source of new information (the circumstances in which the information was acquired) than younger adults.

  • Light, Leah L. The organization of memory in old age. In Craik, Fergus I. M. & Salthouse, Timothy A. (eds). 1992. The Handbook of Aging and Cognition. Hillsdale, NJ: LEA. Pp111-165.
  1. Burke DM, MacKay DG, Worthley JS, & Wade E. 1991. On the tip of the tongue: What causes word finding failures in young and older adults? Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 542-79.
    Cohen G & Faulkner D. 1986. Memory for proper names: Age differences in retrieval. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 4, 187-97.
  2. Albert MS, Heller HS, & Milberg W. 1988. Changes in naming ability with age. Psychology and Aging, 3, 173-8.
    Borod JC, Goodglass H, & Kaplan E. 1980. Normative data on the Boston Diagnostic Aphasia Examination, Parietal Lobe Battery, and the Boston Naming Test. Journal of Clinical Neuropsychology, 2, 209-15.
    Van Gorp W, Satz P, Kiersch ME & Henry R. 1986. Normative data on the Boston Naming Test for a group of normal older adults. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 8, 702-5.
    Mitchell DW. 1989. How many memory systems? Evidence from aging. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 15, 31-49. (no age effect found).

Tip-of-the-tongue experiences

In a tip-of-the-tongue experience, you typically know quite a lot of information about the target word without being able to remember the word itself.

Remembering often occurs sometime later, when you have stopped searching for the word.

Often a similar sounding word seems to block your recall, but these probably don't cause your difficulty in remembering.

TOTs probably occur because of there is a weak connection between the meaning and the sound of a word.

Connections are weak when they haven't been used frequently or recently

Aging may also weaken connections.

TOTs do occur more frequently as we age.

In general, this increase in TOTs with age is seen in poorer recall of names (proper names and names of things). Abstract words do not become harder to recall with age.

Keeping your experience of language diverse (e.g., playing scrabble, doing crosswords) may help reduce TOTs.

What is a tip-of-the-tongue experience?

The tip-of-the-tongue experience (TOT) is characterized by being able to retrieve quite a lot of information about the target word without being able to retrieve the word itself. You know the meaning of the word. You may know how many syllables the word has, or its initial sound or letter. But you can’t retrieve it all. The experience is coupled with a strong feeling (this is the frustrating part) that you know the word, and that it is hovering on the edges of your thought.

When you do eventually remember it, the experience is often as erratic and abrupt as the initial failure — typically it pops up sometime later, when you have stopped searching for it.

Another characteristic of TOTs is that a similar sounding word keeps blocking the way. There you are, trying to remember Velcro, and all you can think of is helmet. You feel strongly that if you could just stop thinking of helmet, then you’d find the word you’re looking for, but helmet won’t budge.

What causes TOTs?

It has been thought that these interfering words cause the TOTs, but some researchers now believe they’re a consequence rather than a cause. Because you have part of the sounds of the word you’re searching for, your hard-working brain, searching for words that have those sounds, keeps coming up with the same, wrong, words.

A recent study by Dr Lori James of the University of California and Dr Deborah Burke of Pomona College suggests a different cause.

How are words held in memory? A lot of emphasis has been placed on the importance of semantic information — the meaning of words. But it may be that the sound of a word is as important as its meaning.

Words contain several types of information, including:

  • semantic information (meaning),
  • lexical information (letters), and
  • phonological information (sound).

These types of information are held in separate parts of memory. They are connected of course, so that when, for example, you read Velcro, the letter information triggers the connected sound information and the connected meaning information, telling you how to pronounce the word and what it means.

When you try to think of a word, as opposed to being given it, you generally start with the meaning (“that sticky stuff that has fuzz on one side and tiny hooks on the other”). If the connection between that meaning and the sound information is not strong enough, the sound information won’t be activated strongly enough to allow you to retrieve all of it.

Drs James and Burke think that TOTs occur because of weak connections between the meaning and the sound of a word.

Connections are strengthened when they’re used a lot. They are also stronger when they’ve just been used. If you haven’t used a connection for a while, it will weaken. It may also be that aging weakens connections.

This may explain why the errant word suddenly “pops up”. It may be that you have experienced a similar sound to the target word.

Are TOTs worth worrying about?

TOTs are ranked by older adults as their most annoying memory failure. They do happen more often as you age, and this increase starts as early as the mid-thirties.

While everyone has TOTs, there are some differences in the TOTs experienced by older adults. For example, the most common type of word involved in TOTs at all ages is proper names. But while forgetting proper names and object names becomes more common as we get older, abstract words are actually forgotten less.

The length of time before the missing word is recalled also increases with age. This may be because older people are less likely to actively pursue a missing word, and more inclined to simply relax and think about something else. Older adults are also more likely than younger adults to go completely blank (unable to recall any part of the word’s sound or letters).

Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by word failures. However, normal TOTs tend to involve rarely used words. In Alzheimer’s, people lose very high frequency words, such as fork and spoon.

Why do TOTs increase as we age? Part of the reason may be that most of us experience fewer new and rare words as we get older and stuck in our own particular ruts. It seems that we need a lot of activation of the sound connections to keep them alive. The more we limit our experience to the tried and true, the less opportunity to keep these rarer connections active.

Dr James suggests: "People should keep using language, keep reading, keep doing crosswords. The more you use your language and encounter new words, the better your chances are going to be of maintaining those words, both in comprehension and in production, as you get older."

  • Burke, D.M., MacKay, D.G., Worthley, J.S. & Wade, E. (1991). On the tip of the tongue: What causes word finding failures in young and older adults. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 542-579.
  • James, L.E. & Burke, D.M. 2001. Phonological Priming Effects on Word Retrieval and Tip-of-the-Tongue Experiences in Young and Older Adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 26 (6), 1378-1391. Full text available at: http://www.apa.org/journals/xlm/xlm2661378.html

Short-Term Memory Problems

Short-term memory problems are, by and large, attention problems.

Attention involves both the ability to keep focused on the information you want to keep active, and the ability to not be distracted by competing and irrelevant stimuli.

You need to actively attend to keep information active, particularly as you get older.

Many of us over-estimate how much information we can keep active at one time.

Many people, particularly as they get older, have concerns about short-term memory problems: going to another room to do something and then forgetting why you’re there; deciding to do something, becoming distracted by another task, and then forgetting the original intention; uncertainty about whether you have just performed a routine task; forgetting things you’ve said or done seconds after having said or done them; thinking of something you want to say during a conversation, then forgetting what it was by the time it’s your turn to speak, and so on.

This is clearly an issue for many of us. Part of the reason, I believe, is simply that we expect too much from ourselves. For example, research has shown that even a very, very short delay between recalling an intention and being able to carry it out is sufficient to dramatically reduce the likelihood that you will remember to do the intended action — we are talking about a delay of only 10 seconds!

The problem is exacerbated by age (I’m not talking about advanced age — I’m afraid certain aspects of cognitive processing begin to decline as early as the 30s).

Part of the problem is also that we tend to believe that we don’t need to do anything to maintain a thought, particularly when it has “popped” into our minds easily. But current estimates are that unrehearsed information lingers in working memory for less than two seconds!

Some of these problems are dealt with in my article on action slips (these problems are not, strictly speaking, a failure of memory, but a failure in attention), and in my e-book on Remembering intentions.

But in this article I want to talk about another aspect: the relationship between working memory, and attention (and, as it happens, intelligence!).

In my article on working memory and intelligence I talk about the difference between crystallized and fluid intelligence — that fluid intelligence is probably a better measure of what we think of as “intelligence”, and that working memory capacity is often used synonymously with fluid intelligence. A new theory is that the relationship between working memory and fluid intelligence is due to the ability to control attention.

This theory emphasizes the role of attention in keeping information active (i.e. in working memory), and argues that working memory capacity is not, as usually thought, about the number of items or amount of information that can be held at one time. Instead, it reflects the extent to which a person can control attention, particularly in situations where there is competing information / demands.

I have to say that this makes an awful lot of sense to me. I can’t, in the space I have here, go into all the evidence for and against the theory, but here’s one situation which is interesting. The “cocktail party phenomenon” is a well-known method in psychology, whereby people are given two streams of audio, one for each ear, and instructed to listen only to one. At some point, the person’s name is spoken into the unattended stream, and about a third of people pick that up. In a recent take of that classic study, researchers compared the performance of people as a function of their working memory capacity. Only 20% of those with a high capacity heard their name in the unattended channel compared to 65% of low-capacity people. The point being that a critical aspect of good attentional control is the ability to block our irrelevant information.

This ability is one that we already know is worsened by increasing age.

The message from all this, I guess, is that:

  • short-term memory problems are, by and large, attention problems.
  • attention involves both the ability to keep focused on the information you want to keep active, and the ability to not be distracted by competing and irrelevant stimuli.
  • you need to actively attend to keep information active, particularly as you get older.
  • many of us over-estimate how much information we can keep active at one time.

And if you want strategies to help you keep more information active, I suggest you look at improving your ability to chunk, condense and label information. If you can reduce a chunk of information to a single label quickly, all you need to do is remember the label. (I explain all this at length in my book The Memory Key, but I’m afraid it needs far too much explanation to go into here).

Anyway, I hope this helps those of you (most of us!) with short-term memory problems.

This article originally appeared in the April 2005 newsletter.

  1. Heitz, R.P., Unsworth, N. & Engle, R.W. 2004. Working memory capacity, attention control, and fluid intelligence. In O. Wilhelm & R,W. Engle (eds.) Handbook of Understanding and Measuring Intelligence. London: Sage Publications.

Action Slips

There is a very common form of forgetfulness that is not really a failure of memory. When we get in our car to drive to place A and find ourselves instead on the road to the more familiar place B, this is not a failure of memory. When we clear the table and find ourselves putting the margarine in the dishwasher or the dirty plate in the fridge, this is not a failure of memory. When we go into a room intending to do one thing and do something else instead, this is not, really, a failure of memory.

These are absentminded errors, and they happen to all of us. They have also been termed action slips, and this term is useful because it points more precisely to the nature of these errors. Let's look at the characteristics of action slips:

  • they usually occur during the performance of tasks that are so highly practised they are largely automatic
  • they usually occur when we are preoccupied or distracted
  • many involve intrusions of other habitual actions that share some characteristics with the intended action
  • such habit intrusions are more likely to occur when:
    • we're departing in some way from our usual routine (for example, you decide to stop adding milk and sugar to your coffee, then finding yourself doing it automatically)
    • the situation has changed, demanding a change in our usual routine (for example, a much-visited shop moves premises, but you keep going to its old location)
    • the situation shares features with a highly familiar situation (for example, you try and open a friend's car with your own car key)

Other types of action slips are:

  • place-losing errors - where you've lost your "place" in an action sequence, and so omit or repeat part of the sequence (for example, because of wheat sensitivities in my family, I make our own bread; accordingly, it is a highly practiced recipe, and I add all the ingredients in a fixed order. If something happens to distract me in the course of it, I may be unsure where I am in the sequence, and risk omitting or repeating an ingredient)
  • blends - where you get confused between two active tasks (for example, you write an email while thinking about the next email you're going to write, and address the current email to the correspondent for the second email)
  • reversals - where you get confused between parts of the same task (for example, you put an empty ice cube tray in the freezer, then turn to the tap to fill it)

You can see from all this that these everyday errors occur in the context of action sequences - that is, sequences of actions that we have practised so often they have become automatic. Dressing, undressing, washing, making coffee or tea, even making quite complicated recipes - these are all common examples of action sequences.

You can see why action slip is therefore a good name for these types of error.

Is there anything we can do to minimize action slips? Well, the standard advice is to pay attention to what you're doing, but of course the whole point of action sequences is that they free our mind from needing to pay attention, so this is not a strategy I particularly recommend. However, if there are some action slips that you are particularly prone to, you might want to try this.

The most useful thing you can do is simply be aware of the circumstances that set you up for such errors. Then you can either:

  • make a sterling effort to pay attention when it's important to you (for example, both my partner and I are careful when we are driving and need to depart from familiar routes, to remind ourselves - or each other - of our destination at key points), or
  • use an object to signal that you have done something, or remind you where you are in a sequence (to take the recipe example again, you could move used ingredients to a particular part of the kitchen bench), or
  • decide it's not important!

This article originally appeared in the December 2003 newsletter.

  1. Harris, J.E. & Morris, P.E. (eds.) 1984. Everyday memory, actions and absent-mindedness. Academic Press.
  2. Reason, J.T. & Mysielska, K. 1982. Absent-minded? The psychology of mental lapses and everyday errors. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall.

Forgetting a skill or procedure

Memory for skills — procedural memory — is stored as action sequences, in our unconscious memory.

Because this type of memory is very reliable, failures are usually particularly puzzling and even distressing.

Because the memory is less accessible, we also tend to have problems dealing with failures.

Failures occur when an action sequence becomes disrupted for some reason. When this happens, we have to retrieve the knowledge stored in our conscious memory, that we used when learning the skill.

Have you ever been driving a car and suddenly you’re not sure what to do? You’re traveling along in usual automatic fashion and there comes a moment when you need to engage a new subroutine — say, you need to give way at an intersection, or you stall at the traffic lights, or you stop the car — and suddenly, you don’t know what to do. There’s a flash of panic, even while you’re thinking, “This is stupid, I’ve done this a thousand times”, and then, maybe it’s all right, maybe you have to take a moment to get your head in the right space, and ... okay, you’re off again, control safely in the hands of the automatic pilot.

But you’re unsettled. There are lots of ways our memory fails us. Some of these are very common, so common we just accept them — noone (well, few of us) expect our memories to be 100% perfect all the time. But procedural memory — the memory that allows us to drive a car, ride a bike, type, play the piano, etc — is different from other types of memory. We don’t say “it’s like riding a bicycle” without reason. Once we’ve truly mastered a skill, we expect to have that, for ever. And, for the most part, we do.

The thing about procedural memory — the big difference between it and so-called declarative memory — is that it is not in conscious memory. That’s its huge advantage; we could never perform skills fast enough if they were under conscious control. As we acquire a skill, the declarative information we learn (‘use your little finger on the “a”; the “s” is next to the “a”; the “d” is next to the “s” ’ etc) is transformed into so-called “procedural rules”, which are completely internalized, beyond our conscious manipulation. This greatly reduces the involvement of working memory, and protects the skill from the types of interference that other types of memory are vulnerable to.

It also means that when we do have a failure, we really don’t know how to deal with it. A conscious mental search is not going to retrieve the needed information, because the information we want is not in our accessible database. So what usually happens is that we are forced to default to our backup — the declarative information we encoded during the original learning process. It is this that accounts for the lack of fluency in the subsequent actions; to regain fluency, you must engage the unconscious action sequence.

I don’t know of any research that has looked into these occasional glitches, but I presume that what happens is that the action sequence doesn’t immediately engage. As soon as it doesn’t, we pay attention — that makes it even more likely that the action sequence won’t be triggered, because conscious awareness is precisely what we don’t want.

One piece of research that is relevant to this is a recent study that looked at the phenomenon of “choking” — top athletes performing below par at crucial moments. It’s suggested that the problem lies in part in the athlete paying too much attention to what they’re doing. Skills are the one area of memory where too much attention is deleterious to performance!

I think the best way to deal with this very occasional glitch in performance is to relax, stop thinking about what you’re doing, go back a little in the action sequence to an obvious starting point (if you can’t or don’t need to physically re-do earlier steps, mimic the steps). Remember that skills are stored as sequences, and it’s hard to break in halfway through a sequence, you need to start at the beginning.

You can read more about skill memory and about the best way to practice.

You might also be interested in a related (but separate) issue, that of action slips, which are a product of a lack of attention, not a surfeit.

This article originally appeared in the November 2004 newsletter.


Doing more than one task at a time requires us to switch our attention rapidly between the tasks.

This is easier if the tasks don't need much attention.

Although we think we're saving time, time is lost when switching between tasks; these time costs increase for complex or unfamiliar tasks.

Both alcohol and aging affect our ability to switch attention rapidly.

A very common situation today, which is probably responsible for a great deal of modern anxiety about failing memory, is that where we're required to “multitask”, that trendy modern word for trying to do more than one thing at a time. It is a situation for which both the normal consequences of aging and low working memory capacity has serious implications.

There’s an old insult along the lines of “he can’t walk and chew gum”. The insult is a tacit acknowledgment that doing two things at the same time can put a strain on mental resources, and also recognizes (this is the insult part!) that well-practiced activities do not place as much demand on our cognitive resources. We can, indeed, do more than one task at a time, as long as only one of the tasks requires our attention. It is attention that can’t be split.

You may feel that you can, in fact, do two tasks requiring attention simultaneously. For example, talking on a cellphone and driving!

Not true.

What you are in fact doing, is switching your attention rapidly between the two tasks, and you are doing it at some cost.

How big a cost depends on a number of factors. If you are driving a familiar route, with no unexpected events (such as the car in front of you braking hard, or a dog running out on the road), you may not notice the deterioration in your performance. It also helps if the conversation you are having is routine, with little emotional engagement. But if the conversation is stressful, or provokes strong emotion, or requires you to think … well, any of these factors will impact on your ability to drive.

The ability to switch attention between tasks is regulated by a function called prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain appears to be particularly affected by aging, and also by alcohol. Thus, talking on a cellphone while driving drunk is a recipe for disaster! Nor do you have to actually be under the influence to be affected in this way by alcohol; impaired executive control is characteristic of alcoholics.

More commonly, we get older, and as we get older we become less able to switch attention fast.

The ability to switch attention is also related to working memory capacity.

But multitasking is not only a problem for older adults, or those with a low working memory capacity. A study [1] using young adults found that for all types of tasks, time was lost when switching between tasks, and time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, so it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs also were greater when subjects switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar.

Part of the problem in switching attention is that we have to change “rules”. Rule activation takes significant amounts of time, several tenths of a second — which may not sound much, but can mean the difference between life and death in some situations (such as driving a car), and which even in less dramatic circumstances, adds appreciably to the time it takes to do tasks, if you are switching back and forth repeatedly.

To take an example close to home, people required to write a report while repeatedly checking their email took half again as long to finish the report compared to those who didn't switch between tasks!

In other words, while multitasking may seem more efficient, it may not actually BE more efficient. It may in fact take more time in the end, and the tasks may of course be performed more poorly. And then there is the stress; switching between tasks places demands on your mental resources, and that is stressful. (And not only are we poorer at such task-switching as we age, we also tend to be less able to handle stress).

There is another aspect to multitasking that deserves mention. It has been speculated that rapid switching between tasks may impede long-term memory encoding. I don’t know of any research on this, but it is certainly plausible.

So, what can we do about it?

Well, the main thing is to be aware of the problems. Accept that multitasking is not a particularly desirably situation; that it costs you time and quality of performance; that your ability to multitask will be impeded by fatigue, alcohol, stress, emotion, distraction (e.g., don’t add to your problems by having music on as well); that your ability will also be impaired by age. Understand that multitasking involves switching attention between tasks, not simultaneous performance; and that it will therefore be successful to the extent that the tasks are familiar and well-practised.

This article originally appeared in the February 2005 newsletter.

  1. Rubinstein, J.S., Meyer, D.E. & Evans, J.E. 2001. Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology - Human Perception and Performance, 27 (4), 763-797.

Everyday memory problems

Frequent failures to retrieve information that should be readily accessible can generally be attributed to physical, environmental, and strategic reasons.

Physical reasons encompass health problems, lack of sleep, and stress.

Environmental reasons mainly concern how distracted you are.

Strategic reasons concern a failure to adopt effective memory strategies as situations and abilities change.

I was recently asked for advice in the case of increased “brain blocks” — failures to retrieve information that should be readily accessible. This question is, I suspect, of interest to many of my readers, so I thought I would answer it here.

There are many possible causes for an increase in this type of memory failure. These causes fall into three main categories: physical, environmental, and strategic. Let’s deal with the physical first.

Physical reasons for memory failure

Before looking at applying new strategies or making changes to your environment, you should first rule out the possibility that your memory difficulties are caused by health problems. To do this, you should consider whether memory failure is your sole symptom. If it is (and I have to say, I suspect this will rarely be true), then, fine, go straight to considering your environment and your habits. However, if you have other symptoms, however unrelated, then consider the possibility that your mental problems are part and parcel of some underlying physical dysfunction.

It may be something as simple as lack of sleep. In fact, considering how widespread the modern trend of not getting enough sleep is, I’d say look at that first. Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep in ensuring your brain is firing on all cylinders.

After sleep, I suggest you look at the other modern disease: allergies / sensitivities of various kinds. (I am assuming you don’t have a major health problem — presumably you would already be aware of this). If you suffer from these, you will have a raft of symptoms, possibly minor, but startling in their array if you stop and think about them.

For example, in my own case, I first considered food sensitivities because of serious fatigue. However, once I found the major offender (wheat), and realized that, indeed, food sensitivity was to blame, I listed all the various things “wrong” with me — things I was used to, that I just thought were how I was, such as achy joints. I filled a page with such ailments! (And, yes, to my complete astonishment, after having achy joints most of my life, I no longer get them now that I know the offending foods). My point is that if you’re suffering from food or chemical sensitivities, you will almost certainly suffer from multiple symptoms.

And, of course, the final modern disease is that old bugbear, stress.

I think it’s fair to say that adequate sleep, adequate exercise, and appropriate diet will ameliorate most of the “minor” physical ailments that impede memory (I hasten to add that I’m using “minor” only to distinguish such complaints from major disorders that require medical intervention).

I’m not saying that ensuring you eat right, sleep well, and exercise sufficiently, is easy! But don’t expect these things not to affect you, particularly as you age (and we’re not talking serious age, here; even in your thirties, you can’t get away with the complete disregard you may have shown in your twenties).

So much for physical causes. What about the environment?

Environmental reasons for memory failure

If you’re madly busy, if you’re having to keep many different things in mind, then you must expect this to take its toll on your mental resources, especially as you age. Don’t compare yourself to others — we are all different, and all have different capacities. Some people thrive on situations that would send another person to a hospital bed. You know yourself if you feel too stretched, if you’re juggling too many things, have too many responsibilities or too many people looking to you ... Don’t go by what you think you ought to be able to manage, go by what you can manage.

Strategic reasons for memory failure

And then there’s strategies. What you do to manage your life, your tasks, your memory needs. Most of us developed strategies for dealing with these matters early in life, when our mental and physical abilities were at their peak, when we had fewer complications in our lives. When these strategies begin to fail, most of us blame ourselves — that there is something “wrong” with us. In most cases, however, the fault is simply that the strategies were not particularly good ones. We got away with using them because we did not, at that point in our lives, require particularly effective strategies. Now we do. Accept that, and move on.

What to do

So, my advice to those of you suffering from this type of forgetfulness is to first consider whether your health is compromised or your capacities too stretched. Secondly (and whether or not these conditions are true), look for strategies that will relieve some of the burdens on your memory. Remember that, in today’s world, most of us put far more demands on our memory than has been the case at any previous point in human history. So don’t be afraid to use external aids to memory. Design your life, and build routines, that minimize the demands on your memory as best you can. And never take for granted that you will remember anything that you have made no deliberate attempt to remember.

You can find more specific advice for specific memory problems at:

Action Slips

Short-Term Memory Problems

Word-finding problems

Tip-of-the-tongue experiences

Multitasking problems

Forgetting a skill or procedure

This article originally appeared in the June 2004 newsletter.

Even tiny interruptions can double or treble work errors

A new study quantifies the degree to which tasks that involve actions in a precise sequence are vulnerable to interruptions.

In my book on remembering intentions, I spoke of how quickly and easily your thoughts can be derailed, leading to ‘action slips’ and, in the wrong circumstances, catastrophic mistakes. A new study shows how a 3-second interruption while doing a task doubled the rate of sequence errors, while a 4s one tripled it.

The study involved 300 people, who were asked to perform a series of ordered steps on the computer. The steps had to be performed in a specific sequence, mnemonically encapsulated by UNRAVEL, with each letter identifying the step. The task rules for each step differed, requiring the participant to mentally shift gears each time. Moreover, task elements could have multiple elements — for example, the letter U could signal the step, one of two possible responses for that step, or be a stimulus requiring a specific response when the step was N. Each step required the participant to choose between two possible responses based on one stimulus feature — features included whether it was a letter or a digit, whether it was underlined or italic, whether it was red or yellow, whether the character outside the outline box was above or below. There were also more cognitive features, such as whether the letter was near the beginning of the alphabet or not. The identifying mnemonic for the step was linked to the possible responses (e.g., N step – near or far; U step — underline or italic).

At various points, participants were very briefly interrupted. In the first experiment, they were asked to type four characters (letters or digits); in the second experiment, they were asked to type only two (a very brief interruption indeed!).

All of this was designed to set up a situation emulating “train of thought” operations, where correct performance depends on remembering where you are in the sequence, and on producing a situation where performance would have reasonably high proportion of errors — one of the problems with this type of research has been the use of routine tasks that are generally performed with a high degree of accuracy, thus generating only small amounts of error data for analysis.

In both experiments, interruptions significantly increased the rate of sequence errors on the first trial after the interruption (but not on subsequent ones). Nonsequence errors were not affected. In the first experiment (four-character interruption), the sequence error rate on the first trial after the interruption was 5.8%, compared to 1.8% on subsequent trials. In the second experiment (two-character interruption), it was 4.3%.

The four-character interruptions lasted an average of 4.36s, and the two-character interruptions lasted an average of 2.76s.

Whether the characters being typed were letters or digits made no difference, suggesting that the disruptive effects of interruptions are not overly sensitive to what’s being processed during the interruption (although of course these are not wildly different processes!).

The absence of effect on nonsequence errors shows that interruptions aren’t disrupting global attentional resources, but more specifically the placekeeping task.

As I discussed in my book, the step also made a significant difference — for sequence errors, middle steps showed higher error rates than end steps.

All of this confirms and quantifies how little it takes to derail us, and reminds us that, when engaged in tasks involving the precise sequence of sub-tasks (which so many tasks do), we need to be alert to the dangers of interruptions. This is, of course, particularly true for those working in life-critical areas, such as medicine.


[3207] Altmann, E. M., Gregory J., & Hambrick D. Z. (2013).  Momentary Interruptions Can Derail the Train of Thought. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. No - Pagination Specified.

When estrogen helps memory, and when it doesn’t

Recent rodent studies confirm attention and learning is more difficult for women when estrogen is high, but estrogen therapy can help menopausal women — if given during a critical window.

Recent rodent studies add to our understanding of how estrogen affects learning and memory. A study found that adult female rats took significantly longer to learn a new association when they were in periods of their estrus cycle with high levels of estrogen, compared to their ability to learn when their estrogen level was low. The effect was not found among pre-pubertal rats. The study follows on from an earlier study using rats with their ovaries removed, whose learning was similarly affected when given high levels of estradiol.

Human females have high estrogen levels while they are ovulating. These high levels have also been shown to interfere with women's ability to pay attention.

On the other hand, it needs to be remembered that estrogen therapy has been found to help menopausal and post-menopausal women. It has also been found to be detrimental. Recent research has suggested that timing is important, and it’s been proposed that a critical period exists during which hormone therapy must be administered if it is to improve cognitive function.

This finds some support in another recent rodent study, which found that estrogen replacement increased long-term potentiation (a neural event that underlies memory formation) in young adult rats with their ovaries removed, through its effects on NMDA receptors and dendritic spine density — but only if given within 15 months of the ovariectomy. By 19 months, the same therapy couldn’t induce the changes.

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