Saturday, October 1, 2016

Why do I sometimes forget what I came into a room to get?

Ayanna Thomas, an assistant professor of psychology, says that you’re not alone

five squares by five squares

In psychological tests, subjects have to remember where an item is and what it is on this five-by-five grid. Photo: Courtesy of Ayanna Thomas

This situation occurs more than I care to admit. In fact, I experienced this chain of events just yesterday, when I was heading back to the office after a few hours spent working at home. After braving a torrential downpour and arriving at my car, I realized I had left the exams I had been grading on the coffee table in the living room. I remembered the item, and I remembered the location of the item. I turned around and splashed back to my front door.

Once inside, I headed straight for the living room, and I stared at the coffee table, trying to remember what I had returned for. I knew that it was in my living room, and that it was something important. Eventually it hit me. I grabbed the manila envelope containing the exams, and I walked back out into the storm.

This particular memory failure demonstrates the difficulties of putting the what together with the where. When I returned to the living room, I no longer remembered what I was looking for. Interestingly, I did—and often do—remember where but forget what.

In collaboration with Bailey Bonura, G13, and Professor Holly Taylor in the psychology department, I have been investigating the relationship between item and location memory, as well as the subjective experience of remembering. In a series of experiments, we presented young adults, ages 18 to 25, and older adults, ages 60 to 85, with a series of 5 by 5 spatial grids that contained between two and five shapes.

When participants knew they would be tested on where a shape appeared, we found that both older and younger adults had good location memory, and it remained good even with more locations to remember. But if they were asked to remember what or what was where, and had to remember more shapes—five versus two—their memory was worse.

Our results confirm the suspicion I have every time I return home for a forgotten item. Memory for where an item is located is less cognitively demanding than memory for what an item is. Further, our results suggest that this pattern remains unaffected by age—older adults are able to remember location information just as well as younger adults.

Great—having empirically demonstrated that I am more likely to remember where as opposed to what, I am still stuck wondering what it is I left on my coffee table.

A second goal of our research has been to examine whether participants are aware of the difference between their memory for where and what. If aware, people may be able to implement strategies that put more emphasis on remembering what and less on the easier to remember where.

To investigate awareness, we had participants after studying each grid rate their likelihood of remembering the shapes, the locations or both shapes and locations. Both age groups could predict with some accuracy items they would likely remember. Similarly, both groups made accurate predictions of combined item and location memory. Older adults, however, underestimated their location memory.

These results suggest that as we get older we might become less able to differentiate between easy to remember and more challenging information. For example, as we get older we may spend unnecessary time trying to remember where the object is located and not enough time trying to remember exactly what the object is.

Perhaps this is my problem. Maybe if I try to keep track of what, the where will take care of itself.

Do you have a question for Ask the Professor? Send it to Tufts Journal editor Taylor McNeil.

Posted October 17, 2010