When you lose track of what you intended to say or do, you've had what cognitive psychologists call a prospective lapse. Wrong-Vessel Disorder is a manifestation of this problem: With the best intentions, you absentmindedly place your cell phone in your briefcase, which has many of the same attributes as your purse. Saturday morning, when you reach into your bag and come up empty, you're mystified. Because you're barely conscious when it strikes, it's hard to fend off Wrong-Vessel Disorder. You just have to laugh.
But prospective failures also show up as What-Am-I-Doing-Here Paranoia: Suddenly, as if someone depressed the power button on the remote, you go blank. The minigaps, where you march purposefully to the kitchen, only to stand there and scratch your head, are irritating; the yawning caverns can really shake your confidence. Fran, the marketing director of a local bank, was bright-eyed and ready to give her quarterly presentation before the board—until somewhere in midsentence, three out of six points eluded her, an experience that made her realize that her days of winging it were over.
Mark McDaniel observes that younger adults make use of robust working memory, relying on a little voice that automatically whispers “get milk, get milk, get milk,” all the way home. In midlife that voice is easily interrupted ("Oh, look, it's raining! Now, where did I put that umbrella?")—at least until you're in the driveway. If you can send the voice back into the game, you'll avoid a lot of extra trips to the store. I've stuck Post-it notes on the steering wheel, which makes driving awkward, but at least I don't return home with the FedEx package still beside me on the front seat.
When what you forget is not a grocery item but an idea, you've no alternative but to backtrack mentally. It's vaguely amusing to do this with a friend at lunch—"What on earth were we talking about?"—but in a professional situation it hurts. With a little digging, you can often extract a key idea that lingers in your working memory and, from there, reconstruct the context of the discussion. In such cases, it is helpful to have a stockpile of useful phrases, conversation fillers that buy you time. “Do you see what I mean?” works well, as does my friend Jeff's old standby, delivered with the greatest sincerity: “Now that's very interesting,” even when it isn't.
When a colleague stood me up for breakfast, after exchanging no fewer than nine e-mails about where and when earlier in the week, I wasn't upset—I was as curious as a botanist who has come upon a valuable specimen. How had it happened? Had planets collided yet again? In a classic demonstration of autopilot, he'd exited the commuter train, jumped on the subway, and gone straight to work, failing to stop at the café across the street from the station where we'd planned to meet. When I phoned his cell, it took him several seconds to realize his mistake, at which point he howled in dismay.
He didn't want to talk about it, but nevertheless I probed. “Wait,” I said, “let's dissect it. How did it start?”
As was his habit, he had carefully printed out his schedule the previous night before leaving work, he explained. Then he packed up his briefcase and departed, leaving the piece of paper in the printer. From that moment on, our breakfast appointment never crossed his mind. “Is this normal?” he asked. It was normal, I assured him, in that it happened regularly to people in midlife. But that didn't mean he had to sit back and take it. It was time to make a stand.
Adapted from Cathryn Jakobson Ramin's book, Carved in Sand: When Attention Fails and Memory Fades in Midlife (HarperCollins).
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