“Why We Keep Losing Our Keys” by Sumathi Reddy, the Wall Street Journal, 4/15/2014
Losing things is nothing new for me. My mother’s frequent expression was, “It’ll turn up when you’re not even looking for it.” My grandmother’s expression was, “If it was a dog, it would bite you (what you are looking for is probably nearby).” I must have needed these frequent reminders.
At a past mini-reunion at Ocean City, I forfeited a $20 deposit on a TV remote I lost until I got home and found it in my pants pocket. (They refunded my deposit when I mailed it back, and we still laugh about it.) My solution was to give up wearing cargo pants with ten pockets.
Columnist Reddy tells us that misplacing things is common at any age. The average person misplaces 9 items a day, and in a survey, 1/3 estimated they average as much as 15 minutes a day looking for items. I am at least better than that.
The breakdown, according to a Harvard psychologist, can occur at two points: when we first put down an object but fail to encode that action in our memory, or later when we fail to retrieve what is in our memory. Whichever, the result is the same and just as irritating. And size is not an issue. We can lose a car in a parking lot just as easily as the keys.
A recent study indicates about half of the variation in peoples’ forgetfulness is generic. If we are forgetful now, we were probably always forgetful but didn’t notice it as much (or we forgot we were forgetful). Another problem is interference from other memories, such as when we park our car in a different spot every day. Those similar past experiences make it more difficult to remember where we parked it today. And, of course, a major factor is unexpected distraction from a routine action, such as walking into our house, hearing a noise in the basement, going down to check, finding nothing, but leaving the car keys down there.
The basic method we all use is to retrace our steps, but Reddy suggests we should also reconstruct our mental state. If we know we were hungry when we put down the car keys, we should imagine ourselves hungry as we search. Maybe this will help sometimes, but most often I reach for something in its normal place and nothing is there. I have no idea why or when they were last used. The keys are always on a hook, but now they are not—end of story.
One technique I have learned is to be aware anytime I have something in my hand and consciously note when I put it down. For me, this occurs most often when I am doing some small household repair and am using a half a dozen tools—a drill, several bits, hammer, screw driver, etc. I am thinking of the repair, not where I put the tools. Reddy suggests we focus our attention by saying out loud where we put something anytime we put it down, and that is something I will surely try.