Problems

Tip-of-the-tongue experiences

  • In a tip-of-the-tongue experience, you typically know quite a lot of information about the target word without being able to remember the word itself.
  • Remembering often occurs sometime later, when you have stopped searching for the word.
  • Often a similar sounding word seems to block your recall, but these probably don't cause your difficulty in remembering.
  • TOTs probably occur because of there is a weak connection between the meaning and the sound of a word.
  • Connections are weak when they haven't been used frequently or recently
  • Aging may also weaken connections.
  • TOTs do occur more frequently as we age.
  • In general, this increase in TOTs with age is seen in poorer recall of names (proper names and names of things). Abstract words do not become harder to recall with age.
  • Keeping your experience of language diverse (e.g., playing scrabble, doing crosswords) may help reduce TOTs.

What is a tip-of-the-tongue experience?

The tip-of-the-tongue experience (TOT) is characterized by being able to retrieve quite a lot of information about the target word without being able to retrieve the word itself. You know the meaning of the word. You may know how many syllables the word has, or its initial sound or letter. But you can’t retrieve it all. The experience is coupled with a strong feeling (this is the frustrating part) that you know the word, and that it is hovering on the edges of your thought.

When you do eventually remember it, the experience is often as erratic and abrupt as the initial failure — typically it pops up sometime later, when you have stopped searching for it.

Another characteristic of TOTs is that a similar sounding word keeps blocking the way. There you are, trying to remember Velcro, and all you can think of is helmet. You feel strongly that if you could just stop thinking of helmet, then you’d find the word you’re looking for, but helmet won’t budge.

What causes TOTs?

It has been thought that these interfering words cause the TOTs, but some researchers now believe they’re a consequence rather than a cause. Because you have part of the sounds of the word you’re searching for, your hard-working brain, searching for words that have those sounds, keeps coming up with the same, wrong, words.

A recent study by Dr Lori James of the University of California and Dr Deborah Burke of Pomona College suggests a different cause.

How are words held in memory? A lot of emphasis has been placed on the importance of semantic information — the meaning of words. But it may be that the sound of a word is as important as its meaning.

Words contain several types of information, including:

  • semantic information (meaning),
  • lexical information (letters), and
  • phonological information (sound).

These types of information are held in separate parts of memory. They are connected of course, so that when, for example, you read Velcro, the letter information triggers the connected sound information and the connected meaning information, telling you how to pronounce the word and what it means.

When you try to think of a word, as opposed to being given it, you generally start with the meaning (“that sticky stuff that has fuzz on one side and tiny hooks on the other”). If the connection between that meaning and the sound information is not strong enough, the sound information won’t be activated strongly enough to allow you to retrieve all of it.

Drs James and Burke think that TOTs occur because of weak connections between the meaning and the sound of a word.

Connections are strengthened when they’re used a lot. They are also stronger when they’ve just been used. If you haven’t used a connection for a while, it will weaken. It may also be that aging weakens connections.

This may explain why the errant word suddenly “pops up”. It may be that you have experienced a similar sound to the target word.

Are TOTs worth worrying about?

TOTs are ranked by older adults as their most annoying memory failure. They do happen more often as you age, and this increase starts as early as the mid-thirties.

While everyone has TOTs, there are some differences in the TOTs experienced by older adults. For example, the most common type of word involved in TOTs at all ages is proper names. But while forgetting proper names and object names becomes more common as we get older, abstract words are actually forgotten less.

The length of time before the missing word is recalled also increases with age. This may be because older people are less likely to actively pursue a missing word, and more inclined to simply relax and think about something else. Older adults are also more likely than younger adults to go completely blank (unable to recall any part of the word’s sound or letters).

Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by word failures. However, normal TOTs tend to involve rarely used words. In Alzheimer’s, people lose very high frequency words, such as fork and spoon.

Why do TOTs increase as we age? Part of the reason may be that most of us experience fewer new and rare words as we get older and stuck in our own particular ruts. It seems that we need a lot of activation of the sound connections to keep them alive. The more we limit our experience to the tried and true, the less opportunity to keep these rarer connections active.

Dr James suggests: "People should keep using language, keep reading, keep doing crosswords. The more you use your language and encounter new words, the better your chances are going to be of maintaining those words, both in comprehension and in production, as you get older."

References: 

  • Burke, D.M., MacKay, D.G., Worthley, J.S. & Wade, E. (1991). On the tip of the tongue: What causes word finding failures in young and older adults. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 542-579.
  • James, L.E. & Burke, D.M. 2001. Phonological Priming Effects on Word Retrieval and Tip-of-the-Tongue Experiences in Young and Older Adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 26 (6), 1378-1391.

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Multitasking

  • Doing more than one task at a time requires us to switch our attention rapidly between the tasks.
  • This is easier if the tasks don't need much attention.
  • Although we think we're saving time, time is lost when switching between tasks; these time costs increase for complex or unfamiliar tasks.
  • Both alcohol and aging affect our ability to switch attention rapidly.

A very common situation today, which is probably responsible for a great deal of modern anxiety about failing memory, is that where we're required to “multitask”, that trendy modern word for trying to do more than one thing at a time. It is a situation for which both the normal consequences of aging and low working memory capacity has serious implications.

There’s an old insult along the lines of “he can’t walk and chew gum”. The insult is a tacit acknowledgment that doing two things at the same time can put a strain on mental resources, and also recognizes (this is the insult part!) that well-practiced activities do not place as much demand on our cognitive resources. We can, indeed, do more than one task at a time, as long as only one of the tasks requires our attention. It is attention that can’t be split.

You may feel that you can, in fact, do two tasks requiring attention simultaneously. For example, talking on a cellphone and driving!

Not true.

What you are in fact doing, is switching your attention rapidly between the two tasks, and you are doing it at some cost.

How big a cost depends on a number of factors. If you are driving a familiar route, with no unexpected events (such as the car in front of you braking hard, or a dog running out on the road), you may not notice the deterioration in your performance. It also helps if the conversation you are having is routine, with little emotional engagement. But if the conversation is stressful, or provokes strong emotion, or requires you to think … well, any of these factors will impact on your ability to drive.

The ability to switch attention between tasks is regulated by a function called prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain appears to be particularly affected by aging, and also by alcohol. Thus, talking on a cellphone while driving drunk is a recipe for disaster! Nor do you have to actually be under the influence to be affected in this way by alcohol; impaired executive control is characteristic of alcoholics.

More commonly, we get older, and as we get older we become less able to switch attention fast.

The ability to switch attention is also related to working memory capacity.

But multitasking is not only a problem for older adults, or those with a low working memory capacity. A study [1] using young adults found that for all types of tasks, time was lost when switching between tasks, and time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, so it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs also were greater when subjects switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar.

Part of the problem in switching attention is that we have to change “rules”. Rule activation takes significant amounts of time, several tenths of a second — which may not sound much, but can mean the difference between life and death in some situations (such as driving a car), and which even in less dramatic circumstances, adds appreciably to the time it takes to do tasks, if you are switching back and forth repeatedly.

To take an example close to home, people required to write a report while repeatedly checking their email took half again as long to finish the report compared to those who didn't switch between tasks!

In other words, while multitasking may seem more efficient, it may not actually BE more efficient. It may in fact take more time in the end, and the tasks may of course be performed more poorly. And then there is the stress; switching between tasks places demands on your mental resources, and that is stressful. (And not only are we poorer at such task-switching as we age, we also tend to be less able to handle stress).

There is another aspect to multitasking that deserves mention. It has been speculated that rapid switching between tasks may impede long-term memory encoding. I don’t know of any research on this, but it is certainly plausible.

So, what can we do about it?

Well, the main thing is to be aware of the problems. Accept that multitasking is not a particularly desirably situation; that it costs you time and quality of performance; that your ability to multitask will be impeded by fatigue, alcohol, stress, emotion, distraction (e.g., don’t add to your problems by having music on as well); that your ability will also be impaired by age. Understand that multitasking involves switching attention between tasks, not simultaneous performance; and that it will therefore be successful to the extent that the tasks are familiar and well-practised.

This article originally appeared in the February 2005 newsletter.

References: 

Rubinstein, J.S., Meyer, D.E. & Evans, J.E. 2001. Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology - Human Perception and Performance, 27 (4), 763-797.

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Short-Term Memory Problems

  • Short-term memory problems are, by and large, attention problems.
  • Attention involves both the ability to keep focused on the information you want to keep active, and the ability to not be distracted by competing and irrelevant stimuli.
  • You need to actively attend to keep information active, particularly as you get older.
  • Many of us over-estimate how much information we can keep active at one time.

Many people, particularly as they get older, have concerns about short-term memory problems: going to another room to do something and then forgetting why you’re there; deciding to do something, becoming distracted by another task, and then forgetting the original intention; uncertainty about whether you have just performed a routine task; forgetting things you’ve said or done seconds after having said or done them; thinking of something you want to say during a conversation, then forgetting what it was by the time it’s your turn to speak, and so on.

This is clearly an issue for many of us. Part of the reason, I believe, is simply that we expect too much from ourselves. For example, research has shown that even a very, very short delay between recalling an intention and being able to carry it out is sufficient to dramatically reduce the likelihood that you will remember to do the intended action — we are talking about a delay of only 10 seconds!

The problem is exacerbated by age (I’m not talking about advanced age — I’m afraid certain aspects of cognitive processing begin to decline as early as the 30s).

Part of the problem is also that we tend to believe that we don’t need to do anything to maintain a thought, particularly when it has “popped” into our minds easily. But current estimates are that unrehearsed information lingers in working memory for less than two seconds!

Some of these problems are dealt with in my article on action slips (these problems are not, strictly speaking, a failure of memory, but a failure in attention), and in my e-book on Remembering intentions.

But in this article I want to talk about another aspect: the relationship between working memory, and attention (and, as it happens, intelligence!).

In my article on working memory and intelligence I talk about the difference between crystallized and fluid intelligence — that fluid intelligence is probably a better measure of what we think of as “intelligence”, and that working memory capacity is often used synonymously with fluid intelligence. A new theory is that the relationship between working memory and fluid intelligence is due to the ability to control attention.

This theory emphasizes the role of attention in keeping information active (i.e. in working memory), and argues that working memory capacity is not, as usually thought, about the number of items or amount of information that can be held at one time. Instead, it reflects the extent to which a person can control attention, particularly in situations where there is competing information / demands.

I have to say that this makes an awful lot of sense to me. I can’t, in the space I have here, go into all the evidence for and against the theory, but here’s one situation which is interesting. The “cocktail party phenomenon” is a well-known method in psychology, whereby people are given two streams of audio, one for each ear, and instructed to listen only to one. At some point, the person’s name is spoken into the unattended stream, and about a third of people pick that up. In a recent take of that classic study, researchers compared the performance of people as a function of their working memory capacity. Only 20% of those with a high capacity heard their name in the unattended channel compared to 65% of low-capacity people. The point being that a critical aspect of good attentional control is the ability to block our irrelevant information.

This ability is one that we already know is worsened by increasing age.

The message from all this, I guess, is that:

  • short-term memory problems are, by and large, attention problems.
  • attention involves both the ability to keep focused on the information you want to keep active, and the ability to not be distracted by competing and irrelevant stimuli.
  • you need to actively attend to keep information active, particularly as you get older.
  • many of us over-estimate how much information we can keep active at one time.

And if you want strategies to help you keep more information active, I suggest you look at improving your ability to chunk, condense and label information. If you can reduce a chunk of information to a single label quickly, all you need to do is remember the label. (I explain all this at length in my book The Memory Key, but I’m afraid it needs far too much explanation to go into here).

Anyway, I hope this helps those of you (most of us!) with short-term memory problems.

This article originally appeared in the April 2005 newsletter.

References: 

Heitz, R.P., Unsworth, N. & Engle, R.W. 2004. Working memory capacity, attention control, and fluid intelligence. In O. Wilhelm & R,W. Engle (eds.) Handbook of Understanding and Measuring Intelligence. London: Sage Publications.

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Everyday memory problems

  • Frequent failures to retrieve information that should be readily accessible can generally be attributed to physical, environmental, and strategic reasons.
  • Physical reasons encompass health problems, lack of sleep, and stress.
  • Environmental reasons mainly concern how distracted you are.
  • Strategic reasons concern a failure to adopt effective memory strategies as situations and abilities change.

I was recently asked for advice in the case of increased “brain blocks” — failures to retrieve information that should be readily accessible. This question is, I suspect, of interest to many of my readers, so I thought I would answer it here.

There are many possible causes for an increase in this type of memory failure. These causes fall into three main categories: physical, environmental, and strategic. Let’s deal with the physical first.

Physical reasons for memory failure

Before looking at applying new strategies or making changes to your environment, you should first rule out the possibility that your memory difficulties are caused by health problems. To do this, you should consider whether memory failure is your sole symptom. If it is (and I have to say, I suspect this will rarely be true), then, fine, go straight to considering your environment and your habits. However, if you have other symptoms, however unrelated, then consider the possibility that your mental problems are part and parcel of some underlying physical dysfunction.

It may be something as simple as lack of sleep. In fact, considering how widespread the modern trend of not getting enough sleep is, I’d say look at that first. Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep in ensuring your brain is firing on all cylinders.

After sleep, I suggest you look at the other modern disease: allergies / sensitivities of various kinds. (I am assuming you don’t have a major health problem — presumably you would already be aware of this). If you suffer from these, you will have a raft of symptoms, possibly minor, but startling in their array if you stop and think about them.

For example, in my own case, I first considered food sensitivities because of serious fatigue. However, once I found the major offender (wheat), and realized that, indeed, food sensitivity was to blame, I listed all the various things “wrong” with me — things I was used to, that I just thought were how I was, such as achy joints. I filled a page with such ailments! (And, yes, to my complete astonishment, after having achy joints most of my life, I no longer get them now that I know the offending foods). My point is that if you’re suffering from food or chemical sensitivities, you will almost certainly suffer from multiple symptoms.

And, of course, the final modern disease is that old bugbear, stress.

I think it’s fair to say that adequate sleep, adequate exercise, and appropriate diet will ameliorate most of the “minor” physical ailments that impede memory (I hasten to add that I’m using “minor” only to distinguish such complaints from major disorders that require medical intervention).

I’m not saying that ensuring you eat right, sleep well, and exercise sufficiently, is easy! But don’t expect these things not to affect you, particularly as you age (and we’re not talking serious age, here; even in your thirties, you can’t get away with the complete disregard you may have shown in your twenties).

So much for physical causes. What about the environment?

Environmental reasons for memory failure

If you’re madly busy, if you’re having to keep many different things in mind, then you must expect this to take its toll on your mental resources, especially as you age. Don’t compare yourself to others — we are all different, and all have different capacities. Some people thrive on situations that would send another person to a hospital bed. You know yourself if you feel too stretched, if you’re juggling too many things, have too many responsibilities or too many people looking to you ... Don’t go by what you think you ought to be able to manage, go by what you can manage.

Strategic reasons for memory failure

And then there’s strategies. What you do to manage your life, your tasks, your memory needs. Most of us developed strategies for dealing with these matters early in life, when our mental and physical abilities were at their peak, when we had fewer complications in our lives. When these strategies begin to fail, most of us blame ourselves — that there is something “wrong” with us. In most cases, however, the fault is simply that the strategies were not particularly good ones. We got away with using them because we did not, at that point in our lives, require particularly effective strategies. Now we do. Accept that, and move on.

What to do

So, my advice to those of you suffering from this type of forgetfulness is to first consider whether your health is compromised or your capacities too stretched. Secondly (and whether or not these conditions are true), look for strategies that will relieve some of the burdens on your memory. Remember that, in today’s world, most of us put far more demands on our memory than has been the case at any previous point in human history. So don’t be afraid to use external aids to memory. Design your life, and build routines, that minimize the demands on your memory as best you can. And never take for granted that you will remember anything that you have made no deliberate attempt to remember.

You can find more specific advice for specific memory problems at:

Action Slips

Short-Term Memory Problems

Word-finding problems

Tip-of-the-tongue experiences

Multitasking problems

Forgetting a skill or procedure

This article originally appeared in the June 2004 newsletter.

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Action Slips

There is a very common form of forgetfulness that is not really a failure of memory. When we get in our car to drive to place A and find ourselves instead on the road to the more familiar place B, this is not a failure of memory. When we clear the table and find ourselves putting the margarine in the dishwasher or the dirty plate in the fridge, this is not a failure of memory. When we go into a room intending to do one thing and do something else instead, this is not, really, a failure of memory.

These are absentminded errors, and they happen to all of us. They have also been termed action slips, and this term is useful because it points more precisely to the nature of these errors. Let's look at the characteristics of action slips:

  • they usually occur during the performance of tasks that are so highly practised they are largely automatic
  • they usually occur when we are preoccupied or distracted
  • many involve intrusions of other habitual actions that share some characteristics with the intended action
  • such habit intrusions are more likely to occur when:
    • we're departing in some way from our usual routine (for example, you decide to stop adding milk and sugar to your coffee, then finding yourself doing it automatically)
    • the situation has changed, demanding a change in our usual routine (for example, a much-visited shop moves premises, but you keep going to its old location)
    • the situation shares features with a highly familiar situation (for example, you try and open a friend's car with your own car key)

Other types of action slips are:

  • place-losing errors - where you've lost your "place" in an action sequence, and so omit or repeat part of the sequence (for example, because of wheat sensitivities in my family, I make our own bread; accordingly, it is a highly practiced recipe, and I add all the ingredients in a fixed order. If something happens to distract me in the course of it, I may be unsure where I am in the sequence, and risk omitting or repeating an ingredient)
  • blends - where you get confused between two active tasks (for example, you write an email while thinking about the next email you're going to write, and address the current email to the correspondent for the second email)
  • reversals - where you get confused between parts of the same task (for example, you put an empty ice cube tray in the freezer, then turn to the tap to fill it)

You can see from all this that these everyday errors occur in the context of action sequences - that is, sequences of actions that we have practised so often they have become automatic. Dressing, undressing, washing, making coffee or tea, even making quite complicated recipes - these are all common examples of action sequences.

You can see why action slip is therefore a good name for these types of error.

Is there anything we can do to minimize action slips? Well, the standard advice is to pay attention to what you're doing, but of course the whole point of action sequences is that they free our mind from needing to pay attention, so this is not a strategy I particularly recommend. However, if there are some action slips that you are particularly prone to, you might want to try this.

The most useful thing you can do is simply be aware of the circumstances that set you up for such errors. Then you can either:

  • make a sterling effort to pay attention when it's important to you (for example, both my partner and I are careful when we are driving and need to depart from familiar routes, to remind ourselves - or each other - of our destination at key points), or
  • use an object to signal that you have done something, or remind you where you are in a sequence (to take the recipe example again, you could move used ingredients to a particular part of the kitchen bench), or
  • decide it's not important!

This article originally appeared in the December 2003 newsletter.

References: 

  1. Harris, J.E. & Morris, P.E. (eds.) 1984. Everyday memory, actions and absent-mindedness. Academic Press.
  2. Reason, J.T. & Mysielska, K. 1982. Absent-minded? The psychology of mental lapses and everyday errors. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall.

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