Understanding the edge of your mind


Three old punters…

Three old punters live together: Tom, Dick and Harry.

Tom is upstairs filling up the bath for his evening dip. Once the bath is filled and he’s ready to get in, one foot in the bath and one foot out, he stops.

“Wait…” he mutters. “Was I gettin’ in the bath or gettin’ out…?”

“Dick!” he shouts. “Was I gettin’ in or out the bath?”

Dick, a little hard of hearing, walks upstairs to hear better and help. Halfway up he stops.

“Wait…” he mutters. “Was I goin’ up the stairs or goin’ down…?”

“Harry!” he shouts. “Was I going up the stairs or down?”

Harry, sitting at the table, shakes his head in disbelief. “Boy, I hope I never get as bad as you two, knock on wood” he says, knocking on the table.

“Wait…” he mutters. “Was that the front door or the back?”

Ba boom.

Ok, ok, it’s not my best work.

But it is instructive.

A refresher

We’ve looked a bit at working memory recently, and also at attention, as the front door to memory. Put another way, we saw that without attention, there is no memory.

Remember that working memory has a limited capacity, holding only so many things in store while we use them. As new things come into working memory, other things disappear.

One of the things people notice as they age is that working memory doesn’t seem to be as good as it was once, with stuff just seeming not to stay there. Before we’ve finished doing what it was we needed to do, the memory has gone.

We forget what we were doing, part way through the job.

Kind of like Tom, Dick and Harry.

One situation is especially common.

Ask yourself. Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten why you went in there in the first place? We all do it, but it might get worse with age.

Forgetting what you were doing

Generally, we’d say that lack of attention is often the cause of much that goes wrong with memory. We weren’t paying enough and so we didn’t encode it properly, or store it properly, or know where to retrieve it from and so on.

One of the reasons we might not pay attention is that, as we age, we may find we get distracted, and so the thing we were working on gets displaced by the thing that distracts us.

This seems especially so if you head to another room to do, or find, something, and then wonder why you’re there. But in this situation, going from room to room, it seems like there’s something else going on.

Boundaries in memory

The brain likes organization. It’s particularly effective at it and will organize information for us even if we aren’t paying attention to it.

Sleep, for example, may me one of those times when the brain uses a bit of down time to get busy with sorting out the stuff that’s in your head from the day; filing and sorting, organizing and so on.

The same kind of organization may be applied to tasks, with the brain tidying things away once it sees that we’ve finished a task. Close the cupboard door, zip the laptop case and so on. In more highbrow speak, when we get to an event boundary.

Simply, when we get to the end (boundary) of an activity (event), the brain closes off working with that task, consolidating what its done, packing it up, and moving on to the next thing.

It does so to keep things in compartments, maintain order, and because it recognizes a new  activity or environment is coming. As it’s consolidating the stuff it wants to leave behind, it might, and usually does, strip elements out of it, especially those things that it considers less useful or salient.

Real boundaries

In the physical world, it seems that doorways provide such a boundary for the brain.

What the brain seems to do is put the material associated with the room, in that room. Consequently, when you want to look for your keys, or your glasses, the brain associates the decision to look for your glasses with the room in which you decided to start looking.

When you’ve had no joy in that room and think you’ll head to the next room to keep looking, the brain registers the doorway, a literal boundary, and applies this to the information.

It draws a line around the “looking for glasses” stuff,  consolidates it, packs it away in that room, and moves to the next thing.

Meanwhile, you go into the next room and, mouth hanging open feeling a little stupid (at least that’s for me), wonder why you’re there.

It can take some effort, mentally or physically retracing your steps, to get back into the previous room, unpack the idea, and realize you were looking for your glasses.

Naturally, it would be completely perverse, funny and depressing at the same time if, as you mentally or physically came back into the room you’re now standing in, you passed through the same doorway and forgot all over again!

The evidence

The evidence comes from a clever set of experiments conducted at the University of Notre Dame University by Gabriel A Radvansky and colleagues, in which subjects were asked to take an item, and then leave it on the table in one room.

Some people then moved through a doorway and into a new room, either virtually or in reality. When probed as to what the item was, those who had been through the doorway had a harder job remembering what the object was.

So here’s the take home bit

The brain’s own ability can sometimes be a hindrance. As we age, and we’ll talk more about this another time, the brain develops different strategies. When it comes to some of the mundane things of life, event boundaries can at the same time be a nuisance, and a comfort.

Maybe you aren’t going bonkers after all.

Maybe you just need to remind yourself, as you cross a threshold, what you’re doing.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Event boundary

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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