Losing Your Keys Is a Painful Reminder of How Memory Really Works

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Last Sunday, I was stomping around my apartment, huffing and puffing, because I was late and somehow I had lost my keys. They were not in the lacquered clay bowl I had found at a West Village flea market and set atop a shelf; they were neither in yesterday’s jeans, nor nestled in the couch, nor, for whatever the reason might have been, under the bed. Ten minutes later, they were discovered: Oh, of course, the keys were on the floor, below the bowl – yet out of sight.

Beyond being an exercise in self-aggression (and self-compassion), The Great Lost Keys Episode was a reminder, yet again, that human memory (full disclosure: my memory) is not like a computer’s memory. According to computationalism, which cognitive scientists say is the leading theory of the mind, your brain is essentially a computer; yet, tragically, there is no clean way to right-click and save-as the things you want to immediately recall, like the name of that attractive friend’s friend at the party or what the gate number is for your long-awaited flight to California. Like your third-grade teacher told you, you have to pay attention. That’s the path to recall.

While it may seem a touch obvious that attending to something is a key to remembering it, the mechanics are not: Attention “is the initial phase” of remembering, says Jocelyn Faubert, who studies perception at the University of Montreal. If you don’t place your attention on something — say, your keys — then the thing you want to remember doesn’t have the opportunity to enter into your “working memory,” which, while having competing definitions, is “the brain’s scratchpad,” the cognitive space where your mind is holding and manipulating information. As one review on the topic says, you use your working memory when keeping track of partial results of a math problem while you do it in your head; in combining the pieces of an argument; and in baking a cake without adding the same ingredient twice. And when you attend to something in your field of vision, you’re placing it into your working memory. From working memory, whatever you’re trying to remember has a chance to be “consolidated” into your long-term memory — in other words, you’ll be able to recall it. “If I don’t do these steps at any level,” Faubert says, the process “is going to break down.”

There are even further cruelties involved in working memory and long-term retrieval: If you don’t work with a piece of information when it’s in your working memory, you’re probably not going to retrieve it. While scientists aren’t in consensus about why this is, Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, told me in an interview that recall happens when you’ve trained your brain “to think that something is important to your survival,” and you show your brain that something is important by devoting mental energy toward it. It’s not just a matter of furrowing your brow with maximum intensity — though you do get style points for doing so — it’s about achieving what educational psychologists call “desireable difficulty.” Highlighting words, while pleasurable, requires little effort, so it’s a poor way to lodge facts into your memory. But flash cards, which torturously force you to recall something again and again, do actually help strengthen a memory. And that’s the cruelest irony of your house keys: They’re not very important to you when you arrive at home, Faubert says, so you (may) throw them anywhere. But they’re very, very important when you try to leave. If you place them somewhere “automatically,” that is, without attending to them, then they don’t have a chance to enter the working memory, and with that be recalled down the line.

The best option, then, might be to “outsource” your recall by just putting those keys in the same place every single time, like a lacquered clay bowl that you picked up at a West Village flea market. Just make sure, no matter how much you drink on Saturday night, that they end up in there.