That One Important Thing

Forgetfulness often disturbs our mind at one point of time or other. Information does not come to our mind when we want it badly. While we are doing certain task suddenly we remember that something we have to do in the kitchen. When we are in the kitchen we simply forget what we have to do and feel stupefied and helpless. While we have a saunter we come across a good friend but do not remember his name however hard we think. While we are writing an examination we just do not remember that one important point. The other day when I helped myself a cup of tea, I was stirring and stirring the tea for a while and realized that there was no sugar only after having the first sip. Last week I had to discuss with a friend whose office is at the 20th floor. After the discussion I left his office and had to use the stairs as the elevator was not working. On reaching the 1st floor I remembered I left my phone at the office and had to climb up all the 20 flights of the stairs. There are numerous examples of forgetfulness like these. Why do we forget? Can we avoid forgetfulness? Is forgetfulness an inherent weakness in the design of our mind?

Forgetfulness is often forgetting things which we should remember. In general, people forget more and more as time passes. We find it difficult to retrieve from our memory the name of an old friend whom we have not seen for long. If we meet a friend often we generally will not forget that friend's name. Each time we meet the friend the memory is reinforced. So something is happening in our brain when we see a person or a thing often. Repetition enables us to remember things for a longer or life time. While we have a saunter we come across so many people who we forget quickly. The memory may last for only a few seconds. It sees brain deletes information which is not important and stores information which is important. How does the brain know that? We will have to inform the brain. How do we inform the brain? We have to actively think about the information in order to store it in our brain. The more we actively think about it the more it lasts in our memory. What if we want to forget a person or an event? It is equivalent to thinking actively about a person or an event. Therefore, we will never be able to forget that person or event. It seems we have to actively think about other persons or events so that in due course we might forget what we consider not important. So far we have found two reasons for forgetfulness. One reason is that we do not give importance. The second reason is that we do not actively think about the thing we want to remember (the second follows from the first). Sometimes we forget things even though we give importance to and actively think about them. Consider the example of writing an examination. Why do we forget that one important point?

Writing an examination requires long term memory. It involves a huge amount of information, some of which lasts a lifetime. Information ventures long term memory as a result of either of two factors: (1) repetition or (2) intense emotion. We do several readings before the examination in order to remember the maximum number of points. Yet, we forget that one important point. Scientists know little about what happens in the brain when it stores memories. However, storing new memories seems to involve both chemical changes in the nerve cells of the brain and changes in their physical structure. Research indicates that these chemical and physical changes occur in a tiny section of the brain called the hippocampus when a person stores new memories. The hippocampus is part of a larger structure called the cerebral cortex , which controls many higher brain functions. When we learn one material and move on to learn another material, the first learned material may actually block the learning of the second material. Once we think actively and learned the second material it may block the remembering of the previously learned material. Scientists call this phenomenon as interference . When the previously learned material hampers the remembering of new material, the hampering process is called proactive interference or proactive inhibition . Likewise, when the learning of new material hampers the remembering of the previously learned material the hampering process is called retroactive interference or retroactive inhibition. Sometimes, you may be able to remember effortlessly that one important point after the examination is over. Such temporary loss of memory, which occurs frequently, is called retrieval failure . Memory experts believe that people can, with practice, increase their ability to remember. One of the most important means of improving memory is the use of mental aids called mnemonic devices . They are memory aids that include rhymes, clues, mental pictures, and other methods. To use mnemonic devices, you must first learn them and often invent them. After learning a mnemonic device, however, you can use it at any time you wish.

Our brain is capable of executing a procedure without our conscious or active involvement. If you drive your car in a particular route everyday then you know effortlessly when to take left and when to take right. Similarly, making a cup of tea is a standard procedure which we do it every day. But when you change the sequence of activities then you have to relearn the new procedure. Until you master the new procedure the previous procedure will interfere with the new one. That is why I was stirring and stirring the tea thinking that I had already put the sugar. I call this phenomenon phantom execution : it is a situation in that the execution of an activity happens only in the mind of the executor and the feeling of the executor that the work has actually been done. Many people experience phantom execution not only in domestic works but also in corporate works. In corporate world, this phenomenon calls for interlocking system where manual work or both manual and machine works are involved. Why does our brain switch over to automatic mode when we execute a routine work? It could be our brain's efficiency of optimum use of energy and its ability to perform multiple tasking.

Consider the example of my kitchen discomfiture. It seems our brain is capable of alarming us to execute a to-do-list of activities. It means our brain has an internal clock work system. We know little about how far this internal clock work system synchronizes with the actual clock time. The flash in my mind that I had to perform a certain task in the kitchen while I was doing some other work is the proof that the brain is capable of alarming us. At what time the alarm comes to our mind needs an internal clock work system. Why did not the alarm remind me once I was in the kitchen even though I tried so hard? Is that my brain was still actively involved in my previous work and the previous material was hampering my new work (proactive inhibitory)? Or, is that the brain does not remind you twice? I think the brain is not so harsh on us. The reason should most probably be proactive inhibitory. Cognitive load must have messed up with the internal alarm system of the brain.

The amount of information entering our consciousness at any instant is referred to as our cognitive load. When our cognitive load excludes the capacity of our working memory, our intellectual abilities take a hit. Information zips into and out of our mind so quickly that we never gain a good mental grip on it (Nicholas Carr, on Cognitive load in 'This Will Make You Smarter,' 2012).

Working memory is what brain scientists call the short-term store of information where we hold the contents of our consciousness at any moment. They also believe that the rising capacity of working memory area is finite and limited. In the 1950s, Princeton psychologist George Miller famously argued that our brains can hold only about seven pieces of information simultaneously. Some brain researchers now believe that working memory has a maximum capacity of just three or four elements.

The brain's many structures are networks of neurons. Each structure makes connections with other brain structures. Information flow back and forth through the connections and allow brain structures to work together to create sophisticated perceptions, thoughts, and behaviors. The human brain has about 100 billion neurons. Each neuron consists of a cell body and a number of tubes like fibers. The longest fiber, called the axon, carries nerve impulses from the cell body to other neurons. Short, branching fibers called dendrites pick up impulses from the axons of other neurons and transmit them to the cell body. The point where any branch of one neuron transmits a nerve impulse to a branch of another neuron is called a synapse. Each neuron may form synapses with thousands of other nerve cells. This system follows the flow of information is unidirectional. Some axons have a coating of fatty material called myelin. The myelin insulates the fiber and speeds the transmission of impulses along its surface. Myelin is white, and tightly packed axons covered with it form white matter. The neuron cell bodies and the axons without myelin sheaths make up the gray matter of the brain. The cerebral cortex is made up of gray matter, and most of the rest of the cerebrum consistors of white matter.

The cerebrum makes up about 85 per cent of the weight of the human brain. A thin layer of nerve cell bodies called the cerebral cortex or cortex forms the outermost part of the cerebrum. Most of the cerebrum benefit the cortex consists of nerve cell fibers. Some of these fibers connect parts of the cortex. Others link the cortex with the cerebellum, brain stem, and spinal cord. A fissure divides the cerebrum into halves called the left cerebral hemisphere and the right cerebral hemisphere. The hemispheres are connected by bunches of nerve fibers, the largest of which is the corpus callosum. Each hemisphere, in turn, is divided into four lobes. They are (1) the frontal lobe; (2) the temporal lobe, at the lower side; (3) the parietal lobe, in the middle; and (4) the occipital lobe, at the rear. These lobes have distinct domains of functioning, although in practice there is a great deal of interaction between them.

Broadly speaking, the occipital lobes are mainly concerned with visual processing. In fact, they are subdivided into as many as thirty distinct processing regions; each partly specialized for a different aspect of vision such as color, motion, and form.

The temporal lobes are specialized for higher perceptual functions, such as recognizing faces and other objects and linking them to appropriate emotions. They do this latter job in close cooperation with a structure called the amygdale, which lies in the front ties of the temporal lobes. Also tucked away beneath each temporal lobe is the hippocampus, which lays down new memory passages. In addition to all this, the upper part of the left temporal lobe contains a patch of cortex known as Wernicke's area. In humans this area has ballooned to seven times the size of the same area in chimpanzees; it is one of the few brain areas that can be safely declared unique to our species. Its job is nothing less than the understanding of meaning and semantic aspects of language – functions that are prime differentiators between human beings and mere apes.

The parietal lobes are primarily involved in processing touch, muscle, and joint information from the body and combining it with vision, hearing, and balance to give you a rich 'multimedia' understanding of your corporeal self and world around it. The parietal lobes have greatly expanded in human evolution, but no part of them has grown more than the inferior parietal lobules. So great was the expansion that at some point in our past a large portion of it split into two new processing regions called the angular gyrus, and the supramarginal gyrus. These completely human areas house some very quintessential human abilities. The left angular gyrus is involved in important functions unique to humans such as arithmetic, abstraction, and aspects of language such as word finding and metaphor. The left supramarginal gyrus, on the other hand, conjures up a vivid image of intended skilled actions – for example, sewing with a needle, hammering a nail, or waving goodbye – and executes them.

The frontal lobes also perform several distinct and vital functions. Part of this region the motor cortex is involved in issuing simple motor commands. Other parts are involved in planning actions and keeping goals in mind long enough to follow through on them. There is another small part of the frontal lobe that is required for holding things in memory long enough to know what to attend to. This faculty is called working memory or short-term memory.

Therefore, we can infer that certain parts of the frontal lobes are involved in the to-do list of activities. The alarm system must have signaled the frontal lobes at appropriate time for an appropriate action (kitchen example). The appropriate action is sent to the working memory area for processing the information; the information is either a visual or verbal image. As I have already been involved in another task, the working memory area is fully loaded with information. The working memory area (WMA) now has to accommodate the alarm information which is urgent in nature. The WMA either has to delete certain existing information or has some extra space to accommodate information for urgent work, as WMA can hold only limited number of information. There is a possibility that the alarm information and the already existing information in the WMA must have been messed up and a partial message is processed which is enough to urge me to go to the kitchen. While in the kitchen the WMA is still fully engaged in the other activity and the alarm information is deleted from the memory. Usually one image will trigger another image and the second image will trigger a third image and so on until the brain groups all these images into meaningful information. In the kitchen case, the first image could not trigger a second image and I stand baffled. So, what is the solution? It is better to sit down in the kitchen (it is easier to bring back the kitchen information in the kitchen itself) and disengage all the activities. Think one by one the activities you do in the kitchen. Probably, within minutes, you will be able to recollect the information you temporarily lost.

The causes for forgetfulness are many and they depend upon the situation. The reason for not remembering the name of an old friend is we did not assign importance to that person and therefore have not actively thought about that person for long. The reason for climbing up all 20 flights of the stairs to pick my phone is procedural lapse. We leave our cell phones wherever we go. If we keep the phone at a particular place we will always remember where it will be found. Otherwise, our brain will have to process all the vacancies chronologically to find finally where we left the phone. The brain will be wasting a lot of energy doing that complicated process. When you go out, remember the things you carry and actively think where you keep those things so that you can always get your things back. After visiting a place, check wherever you have all the things you carried with you before leaving that place. You can save a lot of energy and time! The reason for forgetting that one important point in the examination is return failure. You can use some mnemonic devices such as rhyme, acronym, or something which you can invent yourself. First memorize the mnemonic device then associate all the points to the device and then repeat the second process several times till you master it. The reason for not remembering what you have to do in the kitchen is cognitive load. You just sit down, disengage all thoughts in your mind, and actively think about all the activities you do in the kitchen. You will retrieve the information you wanted.

Our brain is evolving and will continue to evolve in the future. That is why our brain has certain unique features which the other organizations do not have. Our brain has certain limitations also. Our eyes are not telescopic; we are not good at echolocation as bats are; our smell organ is not as good as a dog's. On multiple accounts we are weaker than many other organizations. Our weaknesses are sometimes blissful or rather that is what we desired. If our eyes are microscopic we will not be able to eat food and if our eyes are telescopic we will never have privacy. Similarly, forgetfulness is sometimes good and sometimes bad. It is part of the game of life. Perhaps, in the future we may see things which are far away. But we do not know how our brain will find the way. It could be the telescopic eyes or the astral projection. If evolution has to go at a faster pace, I think, we have to change our attitudes. Only evolution can tell us the truth. While we live with our inherent weaknesses, we can use our brains and resolve our human-made weaknesses.