Thursday, 27 November 2008

Wandering minds

I'm extremely forgetful, but not because I'm old - I've been forgetful my whole life. And a new study says amnesia and scattiness are actually more common in young people.

We're all showing reduced attention and concentration spans and having more memory lapses, the reason being the sheer pressure and complexity of modern life.

A quarter of us regularly forget the names of close friends or relatives, and seven per cent even forget their own birthdays. Household accidents through carelessness are rising, and the average attention span has dropped to five minutes from twelve a decade ago.

But despite the stereotypes, the survey found the over-50s can concentrate better than young people, presumably because over the years they've learnt how to apply themselves and how to deal with pressure.

The decline is all due to the constant demands now being made on us - heavy workloads, urgent deadlines, endless emails, mobile phones, multi-tasking and new technology to name a few.

I certainly find myself that it's increasingly hard to concentrate on anything for any length of time without being distracted or my mind wandering to some essential task I need to do.

One cause of the growing distractedness is the nagging fear of "missing out" - that if we aren't constantly checking our emails, mobiles, TVs or our workmates' conversations, we might miss something vitally important or wildly exciting - or just someone's birthday. We don't want to be the gormless git who didn't know Britney had broken her leg.

I'm as prone to this anxiety as anyone else, being a news junkie, but it certainly doesn't do much for my peace of mind. Or my memory either, as I struggle to separate all the gossip from the shopping list and the bus timetable. What are we, human beings or sniffer dogs?


  1. Ha!! I think I'd rather be a sniffer dog, sounds much more fun!
    I'm so glad I'm not the only one who forgets things though, I must admit I was worrying about the early onset of senility!
    The worst thing is forgeting the word you need in the middle of a sentence ;) Is that one in the test for Altzimers do you think?!

  2. Well at at last, the over 50's have something to crow about besides middle age spread! I'm forgetful when I'm NOT under pressure. A little adrenaline helps me focus actually. Less haste, more speed I say. Although uncharacteristically, I'm not really fussed about missing out. Tend to live in my own little universe anyway! hehe!

  3. Selective amnesia is what I suffer from!

  4. @Grannymar "selective amnesia" HA! BRILLIANT!

    Nick, I really really wanted to write a comment here, but everytime I start I forget what I wanted to comment on so I go back read your post, come back to comment and poof it's gone again. What was it you were saying?

    My forgetfulness doesn't bother me as I tend to write things down in my diary, if I didn't have an organiser I'd be lost. I follow birthdays from facebook and my organiser. What bothers me the most is when you come across someone you know, not a close friend maybe but someone you talked to a few times already and their name eludes you completely. And, you have someone with you. Instead of introducing your company to them, you rush through the pleasantries and leave quickly. 10 meters down the road you remember their name, when it's too late.
    As to getting distracted easily, oh that's so much fun. I do about a bejillion things in between now and doing what I originally set out to do because all those things distract me along the way.

  5. Suburbia - Ah yes, forgetting the word I need in the middle of a sentence, that sounds familiar. And most of the other words as well, if my mind is miles away.

    Baino - Oh, we have plenty to crow about, don't do yourself down! But don't you find that adrenaline only helps for a while, until you've overdosed on it and then you're shattered?

    Grannymar - Selective amnesia is something I employ frequently. Who are you anyway, have we met somewhere before?

    Gayé - As I said in an earlier post, if I didn't keep lists of all sorts of things I'd forget my own head. I'm always forgetting people's names, even when their face comes vividly to mind. And I quite like being distracted too, it can be quite an effort to come back to what I'm supposed to be doing.

  6. An interesting theory about the link between mobile technologies and forgetfulness is that the usual compartmentalization of our lives has been broken down.

    For example, we used to go to the doctor's building for an office visit, dedicated time where we would sit down in a quiet room, face to face with a health care professional, and for a few minutes we would talk only about health questions in a setting that supports it. Now, calls from a doctor or to an information source can come anywhere, any time, interleaved with everything else.

    In the same way, think about how banking has changed, how 'getting the news' happens via SMS beeps rather than scheduled evening summaries, how we can be tweeted by friends at all times rather than social occasions. Time and space have rearranged as mobile devices network us together, and it has impacts on our focus and concentration, leading to more scattered recollection.

  7. Dave - I hadn't seen that theory, but it's excellent. Very true that our activities are now so woven together because of technology, and we're hopping from one to another all the time. And that might explain the better concentration of over-50s whose lives may still be quite compartmentalised into home/ friends/ doctor whatever.

  8. Yes, we live in a sound byte world, Nick, and they say because of it we all suffer from a form of ADD. I do believe that.
    I have terrible difficulty in placing people that I meet outside of their normal realm.
    Like yesterday I was at the post office and this guy comes barrelling over to me, greeting me by name and I know I know him quite well and can't name him at all.
    One hour later I'm shopping at the little grocery store five miles away from here and there he is behind the counter and I say: "Hi Chris!" and he says "God girl, you hardly knew me half an hour ago!!"

  9. www - I know what you mean, that happens to me as well. I don't think it's surprising, I think part of the way we remember people is precisely to see them as part of a certain context.

  10. my memory affliction as child was if sent to the shops for 3 things I would inevitably forget one.

    Now that I'm older I still forget at least one thing - i.e. the time, the fact it's my round or....shit what was the other one again?

  11. Jenny - I knew someone would ask that! Well, so I heard. Or maybe it was Kylie going bald. Or Beyoncé getting a new tattoo. Jeez, I'm so out of touch....

    Quicky - I was so forgetful my mum seldom trusted me to go to the shops. She knew I'd come back without something vital, or with the wrong things.

  12. Gosh! I am glad to see all your comments...I thought it was just me! I used to have a good memory!!!
    (Came via Suburbia's blog.)

  13. Hadriana - You used to have a good memory? So I assume you're another victim of our overloaded modern lifestyle? If amnesia keeps increasing at this rate, in ten years' time we won't even remember where we live or what sex we are.

  14. Jenny stole my line!

    I agree that technology is messing with memory. What's worse, I think it is making us dumber too. I see it constantly with my students. Spell check has made them lazy spellers, if they can't find it on the internet they don't want to know, and text messages have killed grammar in a way I didn't think possible.

  15. FG - I was reading another horror story about today's students, that they find the idea of reading a whole set book alarming. They expect to be told which pages to read and then they can ignore the rest. And of course they expect to be fed the answers to essays rather than actually (struth) write the answers themselves.