If you want to recall moments in your life, you’ve got thousands of photos and emails to help you. Forgot the details of a news story from last month? Google’s got your back.
The high tech dream of lifelogging”—capturing everything important to you—is increasingly becoming real.
But there’s one big area where our digital recall falls short: prospective memory.
Today’s tech helps mostly with retrospective or semantic memory, events or facts we’ve encountered in the past. Prospective memory is different. It’s our ability to remember to remember something—like stopping to grab the dry cleaning on the way home.
As it turns out, this is where our pain really lies.
Sure, it’s embarrassing when our retrospective memory fails, like when you space out on a colleague’s name. But failures of prospective memory can wreck your career or life: Forget to attend a crucial meeting or file a tax document on time and things go downhill from there. Microsoft researcher Abigail Sellen has studied everyday memory lapses, and she found that people didn’t complain much about forgetting the past. What really killed them was forgetting the future. Prospective memory is about getting things done.
Unfortunately, buffing your brain with memory-training tricks won’t necessarily help. Some studies have found that people who are better at remembering facts are actually worse at remembering tasks. Call it the absentminded-professor effect.
Why does prospective memory fail? Partly because it’s tricky to cue. Prospective recall is about doing task A when we’re in place B or at time C. But place B or time C on its own doesn’t always clearly indicate that you have to do something.
The thing with prospective memory,” Sellen says, “is giving you the right trigger at the right time and place.”