Why we forget to remember
Sometimes even skilled professionals forget to perform a simple task they have executed without difficulty thousands of times before, leading to disastrous consequences.
These kinds of oversights occur in professions as diverse as aviation and computer programming, but research from psychological science reveals that these lapses may not reflect carelessness or lack of skill but failures of prospective memory.
R. Key Dismukes, a scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center, reviews the rapidly growing field of research on prospective memory, highlighting the various ways in which characteristics of everyday tasks interact with normal cognitive processes to produce memory failures that sometimes have disastrous consequences.
Failures of prospective memory typically occur when we form an intention to do something later, become engaged with various other tasks, and lose focus on the thing we originally intended to do.
Despite the name, prospective memory actually depends on several cognitive processes, including planning, attention, and task management. Common in everyday life, these memory lapses are mostly annoying, but can have tragic consequences.
'Every summer several infants die in hot cars when parents leave the car, forgetting the child is sleeping quietly in the back seat,' Dismukes pointed out.
For all the negative attention that multitasking has received in recent years, it is perhaps no surprise that multitasking is also a major cause of prospective memory failures.
We seem to have adapted fairly well to juggling several tasks simultaneously. But research shows that when a problem arises with whatever task we're currently focused on, we become vulnerable to cognitive tunneling, forgetting to switch our attention back to the other tasks at hand.
Research also reveals that implementation intentions, identifying when and where a specific intention will be carried out, can help guard against such failures in everyday life.
Dismukes points out that having this kind of concrete plan has been shown to improve prospective memory performance by as much as two to four times in tasks such as exercising, medication adherence, breast self-examination, and homework completion.
The study was described in an article in the August issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.