Many of us misplace objects, forget why we walked into a room, or forget the name of someone we just met. Although such “brain blips” are common (and are generally not a sign of a more concerning memory problem), they can also be frustrating and time-consuming.
The good news is that most brain blips can be outsmarted with a few simple workarounds. Outsmarting our own brain blips minimizes frustration and often creates a sense of empowerment that enhances productivity and well-being. The first step in outsmarting brain blips is to increase awareness of the most common situations in which they occur.
Most brain blips occur when our brain is in one of two modes: “Autopilot” or “Information Overload.” Autopilot mode (otherwise known as “procedural memory”) occurs when we engage in actions that our brain has repeated countless times such as walking into a room, putting our keys or glasses away, or driving to a familiar location. With each repetition, the underlying neuronal pathways that govern these actions become increasingly stronger, so that over time, the actions are accomplished almost automatically, with little of our conscious attention.
Autopilot mode is highly effective in allowing us to accomplish routine tasks while also allowing us to simultaneously attend to novel information that requires conscious processing (such as information that could impact our survival). In fact, without autopilot mode, the relatively effortless actions involved in even simple tasks—such as starting a car—would take significantly longer (imagine how much time and attention it would take if you had to remind yourself of the location and angle of the ignition, which hand and fingers to hold which key in, how far to turn the key, etc. instead of focusing on important information such as where you intend to drive!).
Although autopilot mode is highly efficient, it can also contribute to common brain blips, including:
- Misplacing commonly-used objects such as keys, glasses, or wallets.
- Passing up a well-known exit while driving.
- Forgetting if we performed part of our daily routine (e.g. taking vitamins, watering plants, etc.).
Other brain blips, such as forgetting the name of a person we just met, can occur due to “information overload,” when our brain attempts to focus on so much information that it doesn’t saliently learn what we intend to remember. For example, when meeting a new person, we are often required to process several types of information in short order: their name and face, highlights about their background, the names of other people we are also meeting, and how people relate to one another. This type of multi-channel processing increases the likelihood of brain blips. (Incidentally, this is also why multitasking is relatively less efficient than uni-tasking.)
Thankfully, the same basic technique—P-L-R (Pause-Link-Rehearse)—can help us outsmart both “autopilot” and “information overload” brain blips. Let’s see it at work:
Step 1—Pause: Before beginning an intended action (such as standing up to walk into the next room), take a 10-second pause from whatever action or thought you are engaged in. Pausing interrupts your autopilot program and allows you to take command of your “attentional spotlight” (i.e. what you are focusing your attention on at any given moment) so that you can hone in on the intended action.
Step 2—Link: During the pause, link a verbal description of your intended action to a mental picture of the action. For example, you might say to yourself, “Take the dictionary off the shelf” as you picture yourself taking the dictionary off a bookcase shelf. The key is to make the mental picture salient by imagining the actual shelf and the color of the dictionary if possible.
Step 3—Rehearse: Strengthen the neuronal connections that underlie your newly-created, salient link by imagining both the description and the mental picture at least three times, or until you feel confident you can easily bring it to mind. By rehearsing the link, chances are you will be able to successfully recall your intended action even if you are interrupted before getting to the next room.
Here are some tips to tweak the P-L-R technique with other common brain blips:
- To minimize misplacing an object, it’s most effective to use a “Home Space” (a dedicated place for the object). However, if the object is placed somewhere else, pause as you set the object down, link the location of the object to its surroundings with a verbal description and mental picture (“My glasses are in front of the vase”), and rehearse the link at least three times or until you can easily recall it.
- You can even use the P-L-R technique to minimize the likelihood that you will forget things you need to remember to do in the future (otherwise known as “prospective memory"). For example, let’s say you want to remember to pick up milk on the way home from work. Start by taking a 10-second pause from your current activity or thought, link the intended action to a salient picture of you performing that action (e.g. imagine seeing the store on your way home and picking up the milk from the shelf where it is typically kept), and rehearse that link at least three times. It can also help to create temporal “sandwich links” to parts of your routine that will happen right before and right after the intended action (e.g. “When I see the grocery store, that will remind me to get the milk; if I start to turn down the street after the grocery store, that will remind me to go back and get the milk”).
- To remember the name of a person you are just meeting, pause when you are introduced so that you can pay close attention to their name and repeat back the name (“Nice to meet you, Mary”) while quickly linking the name and face of the new Mary to another Mary you know (or a famous Mary). Rehearse the link several times, so that you are able to easily bring to mind the faces of the two people you linked (since there may be a delay in your ability to rehearse the link repeatedly—given that you may be in an information-overload situation—try to make the link as salient as possible and rehearse it at least once within the minute after you learn it to help you recall it more successfully for later rehearsal).
- To help minimize word-finding difficulties—or the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon that we all experience from time to time—try this different set of strategies.
The P-L-R technique can be used in a variety of situations, and it takes just seconds to use after you practice it a few times. You can even proactively prepare to use P-L-R when you are in situations you suspect will involve "autopilot" mode or “information overload." By using P-L-R consistently, you may develop a new level of awe for your brain and its amazing ability to outsmart even its own blips.