Background; Memory / Forgetfulness

Current work in the field of memory / forgetfulness shows lots of work on technology for memory which is divided into (a) information management and (b) aids for people affected by dementia, brain injury etc and are typically bulky items, PDAs, software solutions, such as To Dos and Reminders or small physical reminder systems that are in and around the home. My study will be among healthy adult individuals, with aims of removing the interface to have as little learning curve and disruption to their daily lives as possible.


The background and literature we are looking towards shows how forgetfulness can affect someone’s life.  Importantly, feeling forgetful can be a cause for concern when it begins affecting our daily lives. There is little attention given to forgetfulness in a healthy population even though it is associated with dealing with feelings of embarrassment and shame (Imhof, L. et al 2006).  They note that most research is focussed on forgetfulness in relation to dementia but it is also a lived experience and something that happens in our day to day.

When looking into how people are affected by forgetfulness, we find that,

“subjective forgetfulness was associated with a lower quality of life. In addition, in individuals considering themselves forgetful, a significant increase was found in symptoms of anxiety, compared to those who had no perceived forgetfulness.” (Mol, M. E. M., et al. 2009).  Those subjects were tested at 3, 6 and 9 year intervals and conclusions were that reduced quality of life persists over time, demonstrating relevance for daily life functioning. From 1871 volunteers, 40% had perceived forgetfulness and 70% of those were worried about their forgetfulness, with 25% being interested in ways to improve their memory. (Mol, de Groot, Willems, & Jolles, 2006a)

Additionally, looking to healthy individuals and forgetfulness, it has been previously shown that relatively younger people tend to ascribe their perceived forgetfulness to tension and emotional problems, lack of interest, and poor concentration (Commissaris et al., 1998; Ponds et al., 1997).

It’s important to note that it is the perception of forgetfulness, not the actual clinically measured amount of forgetfulness that becomes important. Complaints of memory loss did not correlate with the actual memory performance in the tests. However, those subjects who most emphatically complained of memory disturbance had greater tendencies toward somatic complaining, higher feelings of anxiety about their physical health, and more negative feelings of their own competence and capabilities than those who did not complain of memory deterioration associated with ageing. (Hanninen et al, 1994)

This leads us to our question, can a smart object be used to alleviate the negative emotions and life impacting changes when forgetfulness happens (in a way that would not contribute to additional cognitive load).

Cognition (or mental activity) is an area within psychology that describes how we acquire, store, transform and use knowledge. It is important we understand some of the ways in which we store and access that information in order to establish if there are particular ways in which we can alter a device to be more effective. For example understanding that we are sensitive to change not stasis, how can we ensure they see and acknowledge the system if it is the same every day?

Distributed Cognition
This approach emphasises the distributed nature of cognitive phenomena across individuals, artefacts and internal and external representations (Hutchins, E. & Norman, D. A. 1988) in terms of a common language of  ‘representational states’ and ‘media’. In so doing, it dissolves traditional divisions between the inside/outside boundary of the individual and the culture/cognition distinction that anthropologists and cognitive psychologists have historically created. Instead, it focuses on the interactions between the distributed structures of the phenomena that is under scrutiny. (Rogers 1997)

Although we have many constraints in our everyday lives the restricted amount of working memory is one that affects us daily. Miller describes it as “7 plus or minus 2” (representing the number of active elements that an average human can reason with simultaneously, a highly cited paper in psychology). (Miller, 1956) However the working memory holds many more items that are of one syllable than if they had three. Working memory is also the premise for what allows us to do everyday activities involving thought. It is the section of memory where we carry out thought processes and use them to learn and reason about topics. Essentially, it lets you keep the information active and accessible for a variety of cognitive tasks. Miller uses the word chunk as a term to describe a basic unit. A chunk could be a single number, or if there are a specific pattern or correlation between numbers – for example an area code of 01904 that would become a chunk as you associate those numbers together for a purpose.

Baddeley and Hitch proposed a working memory model (in 1974) which replaced the concept of general short term memory with specific, active components. The working memory model explains practical observations, such as why it is easier to do two different tasks (one verbal and one visual) than two similar tasks (e.g., two visual). This study described a complex process and confirms the view that the self-perception of memory problems is difficult to assess.

Questions that have been used for self-perception include; “Do you have problems with your memory?”, “Do you find that you have trouble with your memory?” or “Do you have complaints about your memory?” (Geerlings MI, Jonker C, Bouter LM, Ader HJ, Schmand B.)

Sins of Memory (Schacter, 2001)
This is a theory that if you avoid committing these sins, it will help your ability to remember. However, he states that these features of human memory are not actually all bad and may serve a purpose. (For example persistence is needed for long term memory.)

Forgetting – Sins of Omission
A failure to recall the fact, event or idea.
Distortion – Sins of Commission
There is a form of memory here but it is not the fact, event or idea, not of the desired fidelity.
Transience (memory fading over time) Misattribution (right memory, wrong source)
Absent-mindedness (shallow processing, forgetting to do things) Bias (distortions and unconscious influences)
Blocking (memories temporarily unavailable) Suggestibility (implanting memories, leading questions)
Persistence (unwanted recall of information, unable to forget)

Forgetfulness, without cues, cued, perceived forgetfulness 
Because the work focuses on forgetfulness, it is important to have a base knowledge in this area. To understand what some of the possible triggers could be or ways in which it could possibly be lessened. Forgetfulness is described in a basic way as a loss of information already encoded. We will look at what is Cued – an external trigger, and Without Cues, an internal trigger, as well as why we specify that it is perceived and not actual memory loss.

Prospective memory / retrospective / automatize
Remembering to perform an action or an intention at a performed time means that prospective memory is used every day. It is this specific type of memory that this study is concerned with, as retrospective is more in dealing with events of the past and recalling those memories. Sometimes prospective memory is termed memory of the future as it focuses on intended future events. There are also many factors that can affect prospective memory such as age, stress, genetics or drug use. Currently prospective memory is divided into two main areas, namely Event based or Time based.

Event based cues involves you remembering a certain thing / action, when there are specific circumstances present, such as driving by the post office may trigger a reminder to post that long overdue letter.

Time based cues means remembering to do something at a specific time.  Perhaps to remember a certain favourite tv show is on when a certain time is apparent.

A study has established that of the two, event based memory seems to be the stronger trigger Sellen et al. (1997) summarized that external cues are stronger than internal ones.

Quality of life (related to forgetfulness)
“Because complaints about forgetfulness do not correlate well with objective memory test scores, a patient’s self-reported memory complaints have been treated as unreliable information for diagnostic purposes.” (Martine E. M. Mol, Martin. P. J. van Boxtel, Dick Willems and Jelle Jolles, 2006)

Forgetting led to failures in social interactions and influenced their proper performance of everyday tasks. People had begun to wake earlier in order to be sure they were prepared for their day because the effects of forgetting led them to continually worry about if they had forgotten something or not, and so they would alter their everyday routines to be sure they would not forget web based project management tool.

There is also a relationship between depression and working memory. Depression, as described by The American Psychiatric Association (2000) the individuals feels sad, discouraged, and hopeless, they also typically report feeling fatigued. It is noted that although it isn’t clear why people with major depression have difficulty with some working memory tasks though the results are consistent – people with depression often comment that they have trouble concentrating. It was concluded that, “these findings emphasize the profound impact that depression has on the day-to-day cognitive activity of people suffering from depression” (Christopher and MacDonald, 2005). Additionally, that poor performance on these daily activities probably increases the level of depression further.

[symple_box color=”gray” text_align=”left” width=”100%” float=”none”]

Interested in participating in an experiment or have any ideas?  I’m currently looking for volunteers who would be interested in trialling a Message Bag prototype for me, tell me what you think, what you liked or didn’t like, I want to hear it all.

Does forgetfulness in anyway affect your day to day life? This could be anything from having to make endless lists to waking up earlier to be sure you don’t forget what you need for your day!

Email me

(Queen Mary University of London, Research Ethics Application No. QMREC1159)