Ask Well: Now, What Was I Looking For?

November 28, 2023
Scott A. Small, MD

Scott A. Small, MD

When going about your daily life, your brain holds information in a temporary state called working memory, said David Gallo, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. Having a phone conversation while following a dinner recipe, for instance, involves juggling multiple tasks in your working memory at once, he said.

Most people can only hold about four or five thoughts or tasks in their working memories at a time, Dr. Gallo said.

But unless those thoughts go through a brain process called encoding, he added, they won’t be saved permanently in your long-term memory.

This works like a computer’s “save” function, said Dr. Scott Small, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at Columbia University. “If you’re taking notes and you close your computer without saving, your notes are gone forever,” he said.

The encoding process involves creating meaningful connections between brain cells and requires ample working memory. So if you’re preoccupied with introducing yourself to someone new or deciding what you’ll say next, your brain won’t encode information like the new name you hear — and you’ll promptly forget it. [read more]

Source: The New York Times