My PhD research focused on investigating smart objects to reduce anxiety in the domain of forgetfulness. Continuing on from that investigation, I am exploring forgetfulness and its impact on our lives, creating technology devices to help us. Please support my research – and bag yourself some awesome tech by purchasing one of my devices!
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Forgetfulness is a lived experience for many healthy individuals and something that happens in our day to day lives. Because it affects many people this makes it a critical area to investigate. Although there is ongoing research in various areas (such as Alzheimer’s, brain injury, Dementia and others) there is very little work on people without a medical diagnosis. There are however, studies on everyday human error that are relevant. We see stress and anxiety influencing human error and a person’s ability to remember. This gap is central as forgetfulness impacts an individual’s life in a negative way – leading them to change routines and feel ashamed (Collerton, Forster, & Packham, 2014; Lovelace & Twohig, 1990; Mol, Van Boxtel, 2006; Mol et al. 2009; Unsworth et al., 2013).
Types of Memory
Remembering to perform an action or an intention at a performed time means that prospective memory (to-be-performed) is used every day. Example tasks would be remembering to turn the oven off, take medication at a certain time of the day or reply to an email. Prospective memory tasks represent everyday memory functioning, the commitments to remember such things as meetings to attend, people to call, papers to read or other various tasks (Roediger et al., 1996). Memory for things to do in the future is different to that for things that happened in the past. It is this specific type of memory (future) with which the research is concerned. Retrospective memory (to-be-recalled) is defined by recording events, people and details of the past and recalling those memories. Sometimes prospective memory is termed memory of the future because it focuses on intended future events. Specifically, working memory keeps information accessible and active, in order so that we can use it for cognitive tasks (Cowan et al., 2005).
There are numerous reasons for forgetfulness and they are varied, Schacter describes them succinctly as ‘seven sins of memory’ (Schacter, 1999), as shown in Table 2-1. The taxonomies that Schacter defines helps us to understand how we can be forgetful and reasons why it may happen. Other factors that affect prospective memory are matters such as age, stress, genetics or drug use. The six involve forgetting and distortion, the seventh “persistence”, is a pathological inability to forget.
Prospective memory is divided into three main capacities, namely event-, time-, or activity-based (McDaniel & Einstein, 2007). Event-based cues involve remembering a certain thing or action, when there are specific circumstances present; such as driving by the local shop which may trigger a reminder that all the milk has been used and more needs to be bought. Time-based cues are defined by remembering to do something at a specific time; for example, to remember a favourite TV show is on when it is a certain time.
Lastly, activity-based reminders focus on a specific thing you may be doing. It could be that driving the car reminds you to purchase fuel for it, or maybe talking with a family member triggers a reminder to send them a birthday card.
There are known strategies for coping with forgetfulness which include setting up time- or situation-specific triggers. Both external and internal memory aids are used and the research indicates that an external aid is more effective than an internal one. An external aid can be as simple as a Post-it note or a high-functioning technology system though it is worth noting that the high-functioning technology itself may become part of the burden if it is over complicated. The prevalence of email use has meant it too has evolved into a memory aid (Jovicic, 2000). The concept of distributed cognition, specifically off-loading, is touched on briefly with the comprehension that cognitive duties can be off-loaded to an external object, sharing burden.