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Mindlessness and Memory Slips: How to Find What You've Lost

If you don't encode, you can't retrieve.

Source: MasterTux/Pixabay

The saying "it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all" could easily apply (in modified form) to memory slips: "it is better not to have lost in the first place than to have lost and found." You know how frustrating it is when you lose a cherished personal possession, an important computer document, or even an ordinary umbrella. In part, you're invariably going to be unhappy about the loss of the object itself. But it's a safe bet that you're just as unhappy about wasting time to look for the misplaced item.

It can take precious moments or even days out of your busy schedule to retrace your steps and figure out what on earth you did with the thing. Of course, when you've found the misplaced item, you feel a surge of happiness and joy. The agony of losing is replaced by the ecstasy of finding. You vow to yourself that you will never, ever, misplace anything again.

Memory researchers cite the psychological adage "if you don't encode, you can't retrieve." There are several great tests to prove the wisdom of this saying. One is to try to pick out the correct version of a penny from an array. Similarly, state how many rows of stars there are on the U.S. flag and how they are arranged. Another classic example is forgetting where you parked your car before heading into a shopping mall. This scenario was parodied in one of the all-time great Seinfeld episodes, "The Parking Garage." These examples show that if you don't think about something in the first place, there's no way you're going to remember it later.

The problem for most people is that we mindlessly go about our day's activities, often preoccupied with several concerns at once. We all dissociate to a certain extent ("multi-task") and so the part of our brain carrying out routine activities doesn't connect with the part of our brain responsible for conscious thought.

As a result, you park the car, thinking not about which row you left it in, but instead thinking about how much of a hurry you are to get your shopping done. Or you pick up your cell phone while walking around the house, stop to wash the dishes, and then never realize that you put the phone down near the sink, behind the detergent. With luck, you've left the sound on, so you can call it. The bottle of detergent gives off a happy "brrrring" and you and your phone are reunited. Unfortunately, many objects that we misplace don't have ringers at all, so the search for the misplaced item can be far longer and less fruitful.

Sometimes the reunion with your lost object depends on another person's honesty. It could be a kindly soul who spots your sad and lonely cell phone in a parking lot and decides to call your friend. One of the most famous instances of such an honest person was in the case of Yo-Yo Ma, who left his $2.5 million cello in a New York taxi cab. Most of us don't lose items worth quite that much, but no matter what the value, if it matters to us, there are emotional ups and downs associated with these memory slips.

As painful as these experiences are, we are notoriously bad at learning from them. You vow never to put your cell phone or keys in some strange place without making a special mental note of what you're doing. And then the next time, well, you forget about that mental note. However, it's all about the mental note. If you want to avoid painful and time-consuming memory slips, you need to make that effort.

Psychologists actually use the term effortful processing to refer to memory successes. The more you actively engage your cognitive resources, the more likely you are to be able to reconstruct exactly what you've done, where you've been and what you need to do.

In one famous study of "levels of processing," Toronto researcher Fergus Craik found that by having subjects put words into sentences they were more likely to remember them than if they counted the number of letters in the words. This kind of semantic or "deep" processing takes more effort but pays off with better results. You'll have fewer lost umbrellas and cellphones if you even rehearse to yourself mentally, "I'm putting the cellphone on the counter." You'll also remember people's names more effectively.

What if you failed to engage your deep semantic processes? Your best intentions slipped, as did your memory, and now you have absolutely no idea where you put your favorite ring after you took it off. Your first step to a successful reunion with the ring is to calm yourself down. Do not, under any circumstances, start to panic. Once you lose your grip on your emotions, you will become distracted and less able to focus. Your stress hormones will kick in (cortisol, specifically) and your memory will worsen with each passing wave of anxiety.

Instead of panicking, sit down and think. Reconstruct the series of steps you followed when you put the item down. Remind yourself of what you were thinking and feeling. Context-dependent memory, in which you put yourself in the same frame of mind, is your best friend right now. You need to reconstruct the entire scenario mentally, walking through it like a crime scene. Eventually little details will float to the surface of your memory and you will have that wonderful "aha" moment when you remember exactly where you put it.

You can also prevent losses in the first place if you become more mindful in your daily tasks. Before you leave a taxicab or bus, for example, take one second to look behind you to see if anything fell out of your bag or pockets. When you're looking around for something that you are "sure" is in a certain room or area, do an exhaustive search.

While searching, be systematic. Don't throw things around in a wild panic; instead treat the room like a crime scene and try to move things as minimally as possible. At the same time, really look around. Inattentional blindness can cause you to think you've looked where you actually have not.

Above all, don't jump to conclusions that you're losing your mental abilities. Don't make Freudian interpretations suggesting that you really "wanted" to lose that wedding ring or present from your grandmother. This will only raise your anxiety level and impede the entire process.

To sum up, here are the keys to, well, finding your keys

1. Maintain conscious awareness when going about your daily tasks. Much of what we lose occurs because we're not thinking about what we do. If you do, you will be less likely to misplace things.

2. When you've lost something, calm down and think. Visualize what you were doing right before you lost the item. Don't think about what you "usually" do, because if you were doing it "usually" you probably wouldn't have lost the item in the first place.

3. Have confidence in yourself. We generally process much more information below the level of conscious awareness than we remember. You only need to have faith in your ability to dredge out some of that unconscious material and all will be well.

4. Recognize that you're not alone. I'm always astounded at the number of car keys I've seen at my gym's lost and found key bin. Your misery definitely has company.

5. Rely on the sympathy (and honesty) of others. Let people know what you're looking for. You never know who's spotted the item and is waiting to return it.

What you've lost can be found again but only if you engage your mental resources. You may not experience the ecstasy of finding what you've lost, but at least you'll save yourself needless agony.

Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2011

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