Archive for April, 2012

It’s not easy making conversation with someone while pretending to remember who they are. Between asking the safe questions (How are you doing these days?), sticking to the safe answers (I’ve been fine, thanks for asking!), and dropping the safe hints about how you know each other, (We were just doing the thing at the thing, right?), faking your way through a run-in with a mysterious acquaintance can be a downright stressful experience.

My memory works fine. Give me a fact, a name, or a list of numbers, and I’ll remember it for weeks, but a few hours after a stranger is out of my sight, it’s as if they never existed. But what does this particular memory lapse say about those of us who suffer from acquaintance-blindness? Is it self-absorption, or a result of our chaotic world? The explanation may lie in how our working memories process new information.

Here’s what you need to know:

There are two branches of memory—the working memory and the long-term memory. The working memory is the gatekeeper in memory storage; all new information that presents itself to the brain must meet the working memory before being granted access to the long-term memory.  Despite its importance in processing new information, the working memory can only focus on four pieces of stimuli at a time. It works constantly, holding information in fifteen-second intervals. If we consider the information we’re focusing on important, the working memory will eventually be able to integrate it into our long-term memory.

And that could be the reason why the stranger who seems to know you remains a mystery. Along with the ability to juggle the information involved in the task we are currently engaged in, our working memory also gives our minds the ability to wander, “allocating resources to the most pressing problems.” We aren’t required to give our full attention to the task at hand, if it is something routine enough that it doesn’t require total concentration.

It’s why you find yourself at work with no memory of your commute, why you unpack food you don’t remember buying at the grocery store, and why you try to take a sip out of that empty coffee mug. The working memory autopilots its way through our daily events, holding onto the information from the environment that it finds useful while simultaneously bringing up information that you will need for later in the day. So while you’re physically standing in Panera Bread ordering your usual Chicken-with-Rice-in-a-Bread-Bowl for lunch, your mind is already at your computer solving the latest disaster at work.

It follows, then, that during a busy day, your mind isn’t going to be fully present in that chat with the stranger in the elevator. Your ears are listening to their words and your mouth is forming a response, but your mind isn’t prioritizing the conversation, or the person telling you about the office renovations on the second floor. It left the elevator before you even entered it, and is already picking up the items you need for dinner.

So if you find yourself chatting with an acquaintance that you just can’t place, try explaining the intricacies of the working memory to them. I’m sure they’ll understand why your mind was prioritizing dinner over what they were saying.

Lauren Volpone