Senior Moment or Mental Flatulence?
For years I made fun of my grandmother for calling me by the name of every family member before landing on the correct one. Now it seems that I am suffering from the same condition.
What used to be called absent-mindedness, now has a brand new set of labels and logical excuses for their occurrence. Ever walked into another room only to stop, scratch your head and completely forget the reason you went there in the first place? This has been entitled, ‘The Doorway Effect’. Passing from one room to another, from cities into the countryside or even up your own stairs, can have the effect of momentarily disrupting your memory recall. Gabriel Radvansky at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, and his colleagues, believe that as we process data, our brains create a temporary event model of our environment and the actions and thoughts that arise within. Passing through a doorway seems to trigger the loading of a new model, displacing the thoughts from the previous one.
I must admit, I can relate to this hypothesis, being a particularly visual learner. For twenty years, I was expected to learn the names of over two hundred new children per year, whilst retaining the four hundred names of the current students I taught each week. As time flew by, ex-students would bump into me in the street for a chat, expecting me to remember their names. This still remains my biggest challenge. There I am, standing outside a supermarket with my eyes closed, trying to visualise the student from a number of years ago and where they sat in my classroom, in order to spark a memory of their moniker.
It seems that other sensory information provokes mental associations too. We actively seek patterns in audio and visual stimuli, such as hearing ‘devil speech’ when playing songs backwards or seeing the face of Jesus in a tortilla chip. Neuroscientist, Anil Seth from the University of Sussex, theorises that for the sake of efficiency, our brains filter the multitude of sensory data for basic information such as pitch, tone, melody and meaning, then compares it to memories of other sounds stored from the past, making a prediction of what is heard overall. Seth calls this filling in of the blanks in our reality ‘a controlled hallucination, reined in by our senses’. For example, if your last rail journey was fraught with delays on a freezing cold and wet platform, the sound of a train could well evoke feelings of despondency.
Many of these associations can be enhanced by the power of suggestion. Seeing faces in random patterns appears to improve when you are informed of their presence. Kang Lee, at the University of Toronto, Canada, scanned the brains of volunteers while they watch clips of random static. He told each participant that faces were visible in fifty per cent of the footage. This was a lie. There were none at all, but the group found faces in a third of the clips. Their brain scans corroborated the findings, showing activity in the right fusiform gyrus, or the area responsible for face recognition. This suggests that the expectation of finding faces, primed their brains to fill in the missing data from a miniscule amount of pattern.
Similarly, our expectations and associations can be swayed by who presents the suggestion. Freudian slips can be initiated by priming the brain beforehand. Professor Michael Motley, University of California, conducted a study in 1979, where groups of heterosexual men were asked to read pairs of words silently to themselves until they heard a buzzer, then instructed to read the words out loud. One group had been greeted by Motley himself, while a second group were greeted by a young, provocatively dressed woman. No surprise then, when the second group made more sex based slips than the first - the words, ‘goxi furl’ read out as ‘foxy girl’, for instance.
What none of these studies have yet answered it why these mental aberrations increase in frequency as one gets older. Even if you adjust for age related decline, surely there are more ‘temporal event models’ for a brain to call upon, more experiences with which to accurately ‘fill in the gaps’, thus decreasing the level of memory lapses?
All I can conclude is that…um…what was the point I was making?
Sam Nash is the author of the sci-fi conspiracy thriller, The Aurora Mandate. Release date TBA. You can find her at https://www.samnash.org or on Twitter @samnashauthor or Facebook.com/samnash.author.