If I had a dollar for every absentminded thing I’ve done, I’d probably have a couple hundred dollars by now, which actually doesn’t seem like much when you consider how many times I’ve thrown my house keys in the trash and walked out with a banana peel.
Absentmindedness is one of seven “sins of memory,” a term coined by Dana Alliance member Daniel Schacter in his book The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers. The other six sins of memory are: transience, or the deterioration of memory over time; blocking, when you try to retrieve or store information but another memory interferes (like tip-of-the-tongue); misattribution, or the recollection of information but the inaccurate recollection of where the information came from; suggestibility, when memories are influenced by how they’re recalled; bias, when feelings and worldview distort memories; and persistence, or the unwanted recall of disturbing information (think middle school).
Most people I know have experienced each of these sins, but absentmindedness seems to be the most common. It can cause minor mishaps such as misplacing your glasses (on top of your head!), but it can also have serious consequences, like when it leads to car accidents. Typically, it happens when you’re distracted by something or engaged in activity you’ve performed many times before—basically, when you’re not paying attention.
Although absentmindedness strikes everyone occasionally, some are arguably more absent-minded. A friend of mine realized that she is one of these absentminded folks, and now makes specific efforts to remember her wallet and not lock her keys in her car. Unfortunately, despite her determination, she finds herself doing the same thing.
Perhaps this is because her brain is wired differently. Some studies have shown brain activity patterns that differ depending on how absentminded a person is. For example, fMRI activation in the right inferior frontal gyrus (near your temple), an area that has been implicated in inhibiting a dominant action (like taking your foot off the gas pedal), correlated positively with tests of memory lapses in everyday life. Tests on individuals with ADHD also show different activation patterns in the right frontal lobe and the caudate nucleus, an area also implicated in OCD.
I know this information won’t really help when you’re desperately trying to remember where you put your phone (which will inevitably be on silent), but it might make you feel better about always misplacing things—it’s not you, it’s just your brain.
Robertson, I.H. 2003. The absent mind: attention and error. The Psychologist, 16(9):476-79.
Schacter, D.L. 2001. Misattribution, false recognition and the sins of memory. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. London, 356:1385-1393.