absentmindedness why you forget things so easily

It happens to all of us.

Either our partner is speaking to us and we forget something that was just said or we are searching for our keys around the home but can’t seem to recall where we last left them.

This frustrating experience of searching your surroundings for an item that you placed down not that long ago, unable to properly recall the previous few minutes that led up to you ‘losing’ it is a common occurrence in forgetfulness.

What is the Absent-mindedness effect?

This is known as absent-mindedness. It is a cognitive error that we all have been guilty of making, where we lack attention and find ourselves forgetting things easily, or having bad recollections of memories.

Classified as part of what is called the ‘seven sins of memory,’ Harvard psychology professor Daniel L. Schacter notes in his 1999 paper on how memory gets us in trouble, with absent-mindedness being part of the initial group of three memory slips that relate to forgetfulness.

Absent-mindedness entails inattentive or shallow processing that contributes to weak memories of ongoing events or forgetting to do things in the future.”

— Daniel L. Schacter, Harvard psychology professor

Why it happens

Although it is a common occurrence in many people, the exact causes have not been precisely defined, yet so far we can attribute absent-mindedness to a couple of things.

  • Attention — One of the most common times we experience absent-mindedness is when we are not paying attention to what is around us. Whether that be due to the act of spacing out or simply because our minds are wandering elsewhere, the lack of attention causes us to become absent in our minds. These low levels of attention are often caused by boredom, internal thoughts, or simply due to sleepiness.
  • Distraction — Absent-mindedness can also appear when our attention is taken away from something unwarranted, whether it be a random thought or event around us. This has only become more prevalent in recent years as people are more distracted than ever.
  • Hyperfocus — If we take it to the other end of the spectrum, we can also become absent-minded from focusing on one single thing intensely. Often seen by entrepreneurs or artists that are in the flow of building something, putting all of your attention into one thing can unintentionally make you mute everything else around you, becoming oblivious to your surroundings.

Absent-mindedness is simply the lapse of attention that happens during phases of the remembering process. Most often, this lack of attention is less likely to be attributed to issues in retention, but instead, is more a problem that comes from not being attentive enough to a given object during the encoding phase of memory.

This can occur even more so when your attention is divided, as there has been plenty of studies that show poorer recollection and recognition on memory tests of subjects who had to perform a given task, while they also had to study items for another test right after.

Unsurprisingly, absent-mindedness becomes more prevalent as we age, as evidence suggests that the brain scan and test results of young adults who are forced to divide attention during an encoding stage of input are similar to those of older adults with full attention.

Image via McMaster University

Studies have shown that in elderly adults, absent-mindedness is more prevalent due to reduced activity in the left prefrontal and medial temporal regions of the brain, which are critical areas for temporal context memory.

Image via Journal of Neuroscience

What we can do about it

Considering that absent-minded memory errors occur due to insufficient attention during the encoding stage, the best we can do to prevent this from happening is to try to be more conscious of reviewing things.

Repetition is a great way to imprint information into our memory, and by repeating things in our brain regularly, we encode it deeper into both our short-term and long-term memories.

Reciting a given thought out loud is also a great memory trick to make sure we remember something better. Studies have found that repeating things aloud — especially to another person — can help boost memory recall. A study on self-monitoring effects has shown that when words are spoken to another person, sensory feedback can help enhance the recall of produced words.