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16 seconds to better memory. I think. Can’t really recall.

Submitted by on Thursday, 18 December 2008 No Comment

There’s an explanation for why I tore up the house this morning in a frantic search for my keys, only to find the ring wrapped around an index finger.

Dang it, though, where did I see that link? Ah! There it is, in my “file of important things to remember because I can’t remember jack these days.”

Fresh from Psychology Science, a new report says, in essence, memory decay isn’t to blame for occasional flights of flightiness. It’s merely confusion, and it can be overcome.

Confusion? Me, who loses her coffee copy six times a day. Me, who couldn’t find her car in a lot even if the gear slipped out of park and the car smashed into me?

For decades, many researchers thought decay did indeed dim short-term memory, according to the research report by pschologists Nash Unsworth, Richard P. Heitz and Nathan A. Parks.

The theory went that longer the time between when information was presented (say, meeting someone at a party) and when the information had to be recalled (you run into that person again), the less likely you were to remember.

Other researchers believed, though, that interference makes us forget — you can’t remember the party-goer’s name because it blends in with all the other names thrown your way.

The new study seems to bear out that latter.

The researchers gave study participants either 1.5 or 60 seconds to stare at a computer screen that said “ready.” Afterward, participants were given three letters to memorize. They then were asked to repeat the letters, but only after counting backward for varying amounts of time.

The results: Those who counted backward for 16 seconds — the longest stretch of time time — had better recall, particularly when they’d stared at the screen for the longer period before starting the drill.

Why? “Temporal confusability and proactive interference,” the authors wrote.

Temporal confusability, eh?

Is that anything like Boots demanding that I find his crayons as I tried to find my keys. “They’re over there, beside your brother,” I said. “Which brother?” he asked. Temporal confusability clearly is not a factor of age.

Or is it something like Big Guy butting into my key search to ask when we were going to wrap presents and me making a mental note to add wrapping paper to my shopping list.

I forgot it — should have written it down. But that was more likely due to interference that had by then reached a rolling boil as Big Guy wanted candy, Boots wanted to go with me and I just wanted to get out the door.

Had I actually remembered to read the new memory study the day I saw it, I would have known that the key to recalling where I put my keys was to pare the proactive interference by demanding that everyone shut the heck up for 16 seconds so I could sit down, count backward and remember.

I think I’ll try that next time.

Warning: This could be a professionally damaging technique if the proactive interference is coming from a boss at work.

As for finding my car in a parking lot, luckily Boots can always spot it. And the coffee cup problem’s solved until Big Guy moves out. He’s learned to remind me to check the mircowave.

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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