Are you an absent minded professor?

Absentmindedness Explained

Want to read some “funnily relatable” stories?

  • A few years ago, I accidentally kept my phone in the refrigerator and had a hell of a time searching for it in my whole house later! Checking the refrigerator was of course the last thought on my mind. Because, who in their right senses would keep their phone in the refrigerator in the first place?
  • I am routinely yelled at by my mother for forgetting to fetch something she asked for on my way home from college. She must have literally called when I was some 3 stations away and the request has already slipped my mind by the time I reach my stop. My mother, however, has come up with a smart idea for ensuring that I do my job. Say, what? Stay tuned till the end to find out THE ULTIMATE TRICK!
  • The other day, I walked into the kitchen wanting to get myself a glass of water. Strangely, when I lifted my eyes off the mobile screen, I couldn’t remember why I was there. So then I strutted back into the living room and suddenly the purpose of standing dumbfounded in the kitchen hit me.

I can only expect these embarrassing stories to bring a knowing smile on most of your faces. Yes, all of us have ‘been there, done that’ in our own little versions of ABSENTMINDEDNESS. To define this term in the words of psychologist Daniel Schacter would be to call it an error arising due to break down of communication between our attention and memory systems. More simply put, lapses of attention and forgetting to do things is what we call being absentminded. Although, absentmindedness can be a major indicator of various psychological disorders like depression, post traumatic stress disorder, etc., very often absentmindedness is what normal individuals experience to a more or less degree on a daily basis.

Absent mindedness

Causes of Absentmindedness:

In the aftermath of a blind struggle for restoring my vision after forgetting where I kept my glasses, I often wonder: WHAT MAKES ME SO ABSENTMINDED?

Depth of processing researchers Craik and Tulving have a simple explanation to offer. In their experiments, Craik and Tulving (1975) presented their participants with words and asked them any one of the following questions relating to that word. Suppose the word is “blue”, the questions that could be asked are:

  1. Is the word written in capital letters?
  2. Does the word rhyme with “flew”?
  3. Is the word a kind of color?

The first question requires shallow processing of the word as your answer is dependent on the meaningless analysis of physical characteristics. The second question demands moderate processing of the word which requires us to mentally pronounce blue and flew to detect acoustic similarity. This comparing task is slightly meaningful. The last question entails the deepest level of processing as it appeals us to use our cognitive resources to recall the word’s meaning and decide whether it fits in the category of colors. On a later recall test of these words, participants were more likely to report words to which they answered type 3 questions than otherwise. Thus, the deeper level at which information is processed, the better it is remembered.

What happens when we are absentminded is that we process information around us, even the actions we ourselves are performing, at a very shallow level. Thus, as the information isn’t recorded properly in the first place, its retrieval at a later point in time is also disrupted.

Another explanation for absentmindedness comes from The Invisible Gorilla Experiment by D.J. Simons. Some of you must have watched this video (others, can follow the link) where you’re asked to count the number of passes a group of basketball players make while a gorilla costume clad person occupies the screen space for almost 5 seconds. Having read this description, you may think that if you were to be asked whether you saw “something unusual” while being absorbed in the task you were instructed to hyper focus on, you would still be able to point out the obvious presence of the gorilla. However, research findings show that most of us would in fact exhibit inattentional blindness to the presence of the gorilla because we tend to notice unexpected stimuli only when it fits with other stimuli in the scene. So, I failed to notice keeping my phone in the refrigerator because it was an unusual place to keep one and it obviously doesn’t share any similarities with the things I typically store in my refrigerator.

A retrieval cue is something that helps you bring to mind previously stored information. However, absentminded forgetting occurs when you fail to notice this cue or have too many memories associated with the same cue. For instance, it is quite possible that I forgot why I walked into the kitchen because I didn’t look at the water bottles (cue) lined at the end of the kitchen platform. Or, I forgot to fetch milk on my way back home because the shop I had to buy it from isn’t a distinctive cue, rather it simultaneously reminds me of the fact that my friend lives in the apartment above, I quarreled with the shopkeeper once, I ran into an acquaintance at the shop the other day, etc.

Tips and Tricks to deal with Absentmindedness:

  1. Provide yourself with rich details about what you have to remember. For instance, if my mother has asked me to pick groceries on my way back home, I am likely to remember performing this chore if I put some thought into deciding where exactly I am going to shop and which route I should take to reach that store.
  2. Use events rather than time as a cue. This is so because time-based cues (e.g. “call Mom at 11 a.m.”) are isolated and easily forgotten if you lose a track of time. Instead, associating events can have the domino effect. So, if you make a mental note of “calling your mother after washing dishes” then your performance of one task will invariably remind you of performing the following task.
  3. Habituate yourself into keeping certain things always in the same place. For instance, ALWAYS hang your car keys on the key chain stand when you enter your house. Chances are that you’ll find them on the stand even when you can’t recall putting them there in the first place.
  4. My mother is my accountability buddy. She ensures leaving me a Whatsapp text within 15 minutes from hanging up to ensure that I have done my job. Having someone to report to or maintaining a checklist in plain sight (e.g. on your car dashboard v/s the glove box) goes a long way in reducing absentmindedness.
  5. Wondering why I remembered that I was thirsty when I returned to the living room? Because our memory is quite context dependente. things in our environment which we haven’t consciously decided to focus on can serve as retrieval cues. Thus, to remember something you’ve forgotten, try going back to or visualize the context in which you were thinking about it in the first place.

Ordinary humans have limited attention spans and memory storage capacity. THE ULTIMATE TRICK to reduce absentmindedness is simply to work on tactfully allocating these cognitive resources to our advantage.

MeeHappy Wellness is an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that focuses on overall health and positive psychology.

Our mission is to help organizations get the best out of their most important assets, the employees, thereby achieving their corporate goals.

We do this by designing EAPs to support employees achieve emotional, psychological, physical and social well-being; be productive at workplace and lead a happy and fulfilling life. Starting with happy employees – happy individuals, through this initiative we aim to make our society a bit more happier and healthier.

To help your employees lead a happy and meaningful life, contact us now.

About the author:

Vrinda Ruparelia is a Psychology Graduate with certifications in the Robert Carkhuff model of counseling, graphology, gender studies and first level of hypnotherapy. Vrinda has coauthored a research paper on ‘Procrastination, Perfectionism and Test Anxiety: A Perilous Triad’, which has been published in the Indian Journal of Mental Health. Recently.

Intrigued by this subject right after school, Vrinda has stayed passionate as ever towards the study of human mind to help people challenge the roadblocks created by their mental health.