Absent mindedness. Lost in thought. Automatic processing.nerosciencememory
Driving back from a social engagement with my girlfriend to her house I was reflecting on our time there. We were driving down neighborhood streets in an area I hadn't been previously. When we got to her street I kept going straight, after which she alerted me I missed the turn. This brought about a new set of questions for my mind to consider such as: why didn't recognize her street? How many other things was as oblivious to as I drove that night? What is the threat of danger while thinking? What is she thinking about me that I didn't recognize her street? How much do I care about each of these questions? And so on.
Back to her place I started to collect my things to head home. I felt I had fewer things than when I arrived, so I started to survey my list of items. I realized why I had fewer items, prepared my dog for leaving and was ready to depart, at which time she asked if I had grabbed the items she picked up for me at Costco earlier that day. No. No I had not.
I experienced a number of memory misses that day. It felt defeating. Why was this? They seem to occur more frequently these recent years in midlife. I took pride in my memory when I was young. I unfortunately relied on it through my school years to get me through most classes without putting in much effort and learning the material. About two years I started experiencing sleep difficulties. All areas of my life were impacted, including my mind. I began noticing memory issues at that time. While trying to determine the reason for my sleep issues I took a number of psychological in an attempt to better understand how my brain was functioning. The results revealed that in all areas my brain functioned very well, except for my working memory. The results confirmed what I was already thinking. It was a question in my mind whether this decline was due to lack of sleep or a natural occurrence of age.
Driving home another thought occurred to me. What if these memories issues aren't always issues. Maybe we chalk it up to absent mindedness but that's not really what's going on. Being lost in thought and not devoting your attention to the present surroundings must account for some of this. Someone who spends much time in thought this felt comforting. But I always lived in my head. Perhaps when I was young I was able to devote mental resources to both my internal world and the external world. That I had the mental flexibility to quickly jump back and forth between them. This is perhaps a result of having reduced working memory capabilities. But the more intriguing possibility for apparent absent mindedness is automatic processing. Automatic pilot. As we age has our brain able to shift more everyday items to automatic processing, which has the undesirable consequence of causing us to miss all those little things which are not a part of this processing.
I listen to a couple neroscience podcasts and have read a couple pop-neroscience books but have not devoted study to the topic. My understanding is that our brains attempt to make its processing efficient. When it faces something new it takes place in one part of the brain, and we need to devote our attention to it. But once we become familiar with the task our brains shift it over to an automatic processing area. And thankfully so! Devoting attention to all the things we've learned in life we would quickly be at our functioning limit. As we age we build up more and more of this automatic routines. But these routines are not perfect. And because we are not focusing our attention things will be missed. Mistakes will be made. Items will be forgotten, therefore maybe our apparent absent mindedness is not a memory issue but an indication of the beauty of our mind. And instead of the feeling of embarrassment and discouragement we can proudly trumpet these experiences show casing the number of routines we have amassed into automatic processing.
Absent mindedness Automatic processing