A cognitive failure is generally a strategy failure

I'd like to dwell a little on the comment I made in my recent brief post, regarding the balance between your awareness of the fallibility of human memory and your belief in your own abilities. Some examples should help clarify what I mean.

Let's think of that all-too-common scenario, forgetting whether or not you have done something. Now, you could berate yourself with how forgetful you are getting, and see this as a sign of getting older, or of impending Alzheimer's, or (if you're still quite young), simply of your generally terrible memory. Or, aware of how memory works, you could say to yourself, I should have been paying attention, I know perfectly well that actions I do regularly are hard to keep track of. Perhaps I should start using some sort of external sign to mark when I've done the thing.

Similarly, think of the situation where you and your sibling are arguing over something that happened way back in your childhood. You could both continue to hold your entrenched positions, sure that your memory (which you remember so clearly) is so obviously right. Or you could remember that human memory of events works by reconstruction, and that all of us, whenever we recall an event, are building it on the fly. And have done this many many times, for the same memory, over the years, changing the memory a little every time. To establish what 'really' happened, you both need to work together to try and reconstruct it.

Or how about the situation where you forget someone's name. Again, you could regard this as a sign of your poor or diminished intellectual powers, or you could think about how hard names are to remember, why they are, and why this particular name might be particularly hard to remember. You could then come up with an appropriate keyword/phrase and associated image to help you remember the name in future.

The point is, if you think you have an inherently 'bad' memory, or that your age means that your memory is inescapably worsening, you are not likely to make any effort to 'fix' it. And if you think any memory failure or mental confusion is a sign of your poor mental powers, then you are more likely to believe your mental powers are inadequate or diminishing.

If you understand the many normal ways in which the human mind can fail, you are less likely to regard such failures as signs of a personal flaw. If you understand that there are specific strategies for dealing with different failures, you can decide whether you want to acquire and practice such strategies.

And perhaps most importantly of all, you can apply these principles to other people. Whether you are dealing with old people (your own loved ones, or in a professional capacity), or children (as a parent or teacher), or adult students, you should remember this:

  • what they believe about intelligence or memory matters;
  • what they believe about themselves matters;
  • any cognitive failure is generally a strategy failure (absent brain damage, and not saying that the same strategies are right for everyone);
  • strategy failures are fixable.