We Forget Things

Recently by Mark Sisson: On the Question of Sweeteners

Scenario time. You're in the grocery store picking up the last couple of things for dinner. Pushing your cart through the small throng who also stopped on their way home from work, you weave your way through with the obligatory, alternating u201Cexcuse meu201D and u201Cpardon me.u201D You fumble through your pocket for the list you'd scribbled last minute on a post-it. Hmmm… good sale on chicken thighs. The familiar ding of a text notification goes off with your partner's reminder of one more thing needed from the store — spinach. You reach over and grab the onion you were looking for and go in search of the garlic. Annoying music over the speakers. Better check work email one more time. u201COoops. Sorry about that,u201D you remark after bumping someone's cart. The person grimaces at you with a passive aggressive nod. Thanks. There's the email response you were waiting for. Great, another meeting on the same issue. You'll have to gather materials to email tomorrow for everyone. What else was on the list? Don't forget to wash the whites tonight. There's the garlic. Why is it necessary to waste more time on that project? Tonight is the night to fix the shutters. After dinner. No, after the kids are in bed. Man, that was a mother of a wind storm last week. It would be nice to have a free night for once. That Netflix movie has been sitting there for how many weeks? Maybe just cancel the service. Why bother? Checkout. Long line. Geez, that person has how many bags of Cheetos? Any good magazines while I stand here? Celebrity baby bumps — who cares? Next in line finally. Hmmm… didn't know she was pregnant. Wait, the d — n spinach! Groan.

Anyone here identify? Hands? Yes, these days it's hard to find anyone who's not busy. Whether we're young or old, single or married, parents or not, there's plenty to juggle. Modern life, for all its many u201Cconveniences,u201D has done little to alter the bottom line on the day's schedule. Nonetheless, there's a decided difference between the person who's occupied with a task and one who's chronically preoccupied in the midst of their obligations. Two peoples' calendars might look the same, but their respective experiences can differ as much as night and day.

How many of us go through the day scattered, easily distracted by the extraneous details of our settings, overwrought by the mental chatter playing in our minds. In the immediate moment, we compromise job or relationship performance. We forget things. We make mistakes and have to take more time redoing whatever it is we messed up (like the shopping list). Our kids, partner, or friends clearly see we're not u201Call there.u201D (So much for affirming those connections today.) We're left, finally, with that burned out, fried, hollowed out, jangly feeling — you know the one.

Recently, experts discovered the u201Cfilteru201D in the prefrontal cortex that helps us block out those extraneous stimuli (and, yes, there's a lot of that in our modern world). It's the filter that helps us hone in on the person talking to us in a crowded room, that allows us to focus on our task in the midst of a hectic work site, that helps us remain directed on a quick shopping trip instead of getting sucked into every sale display.

As we age, this filter, well, falters. The busier an environment, for example, the harder it is for the brain to resist absorbing the peripheral stuff. We're, technically speaking, more prone to distraction. Age requires more patience and effort to focus in the midst of mayhem.

There's an apparent upside to this age-related shift in distractibility, however. One study found that older adults — because of their typical declining pattern in attentional focus — were able to u201Chyperbindu201D information — unconsciously integrate u201Cseemingly extraneous co-occurrencesu201D and then consciously find patterns in this information later. As the study leaders noted, this ability can have a substantial — and rich — impact on u201Creal world decision-making.u201D Because they encode this additional information, older adults have more to go on when making related decisions.

It makes sense, I think. In the u201Cprimitiveu201D context, young adults were the doers, the generative group who did the majority of hard physical labor involved in hunting, gathering, building, etc. Focus makes sense in these activities. Older members of the tribe offered leadership and advisory perspective. Wisdom and creativity are honed by seeing the bigger, broader picture, by perceiving and bringing together both the obviously pertinent and, oftentimes, less expected but illuminating aspects of an issue.

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