Working Memory and Lost Keys

Not my family’s fabled key ring but about the right size and variety.
Photo by Jim Pennucci via Flickr
[License: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0]

Keys lost

I share a personality trait with at least two of my closest blood relatives. When I get in a hurry or under stress, I lose my car keys.

It took me a long time to isolate this pattern as something predictable and, indeed, diagnostic.

Lost key episodes were a dramatic feature of my childhood. My parents owned a large and rambling old motel and, when I was very young, they shared custody of a master key ring of epic proportions. Once when my dad was out of town for a weekend, my mom had to cope with an unexpected spring snow storm and with all the plumbing and heating problems that were usually dad’s to deal with. (For the most part, my dad took care of the physical systems; my mom dealt with the people.) Mom did a masterful job of getting us through the crisis. But by the time my dad got back to town, her triumph was overshadowed by disaster. She had lost the big key ring and none of us could find it, no matter how hard or long we searched.

Some keys were easy to replace, some impossible. There followed a long spring and summer where, lock by lock, my parents would come across one for which no replacement key had yet been found. Eventually all the drawers and hidey-holes in our apartment and the various business offices had been ransacked and all the miscellaneous keys collected in a big jar. Either a working duplicate could be found in that jar and added to their growing replacement key ring or it was time to call the locksmith. Again.

Keys Found

This travail could have gone on for years. There were definitely doors in that warren for which the meantime-between-unlockings was closer to five years than six months. But it did not go on, thank goodness.

At the first snowfall of the next winter, my father got out his full-length down coat, normally used only for snow plowing or on the very coldest days of the year. He put his hand in the pocket and pulled out the old master key ring. My mom and dad stared at each other for a few minutes and then collapsed in laughter. It was only then that she recalled how, in the middle of the last night of the spring snowstorm, she ran out to fix yet another broken something and threw his big coat on over whatever she was wearing rather than take time to get dressed.

The good news was that, by then, they had a pretty functional spare set of keys and, from then on, each carried one. A backup was generally available. The bad news? Backups were needed fairly often; in my family someone was always losing the keys to something.

Key lessons learned

I never really connected this behavior with my own key-losings until I had children.

Each time I lost my own keys, I’d stomp around and howl about how, “The one thing I do not have time for right now is losing my keys. Why did this always happen to me when I am already late? . . .” You may know the rant. Or you may not. It turns out that not everyone reacts to stress this way; my husband certainly does not. If you’ve never lived with a Key Loser, this behavior may be unfamiliar to you.

But then, as one of my daughters grew older, it became incredibly obvious to me when SHE would lose things. It was when she was already stressed or in a hurry. Ding. Suddenly the dots connected — from my mom, to my daughter, through me.

So, now, when I lose something, I try not to stomp and rant. I try to figure out what’s really going on. Sometimes, I don’t even know how stressed I am until I lose the keys, or the papers I’m supposed to take to the bank, or whatever. I try to use The Losing as a signal I need to slow down, collect myself, and work on the stress as its own issue. (I do not always succeed; a certain amount of stomping still happens from time to time.)

Keys to working memory

You can imagine my delight, as I have been reading educational research papers over the last few weeks, to come across discussions of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and Working Memory (WM). I’ve really struggled to understand some of the research papers I’ve dug up but not these puppies. Boy oh boy, do the the issues of CLT and WM make sense to me.

Briefly — and yes, I’m distilling 50 years of deep research on psychology and education into three bullet points here and, probably, doing a huge disservice to the material — it is now pretty well accepted by researchers that:

  • We have a remarkably small amount of Working Memory available to us at any one time. WM is the place where we do top-of-mind, paying-attention things: like solving math problems or trying to understand new concepts or keeping track of what is going on around us.
  • Learning new concepts or processes puts a load on working memory. Sadly, the educational materials we learn from can sometimes add to that load with extraneous content or extra work-to-do just when we most need to focus on the new material. (This is the essence of Cognitive Load Theory — more about that next time.)
  • Stress and anxiety also put a load on working memory. More stress means less useful space to keep track of things.

Voila! Stress + (trying get a bunch of small items organized so you can get out of the house to do something important) = lost keys.

Key reflection

I’m not sure a theoretical underpinning is going to help me much in practice. But, frankly, it IS some defense against that age-old criticism, “You must not be trying hard enough.” Indeed, the problem may be better understood as the person who is losing things or having trouble learning new concepts might be trying so hard that her effort and anxiety are causing their own problems.

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About Anne Gunn

A Wyoming native who grew up in Montana, Anne Gunn lived for 20 years in New England before returning to Wyoming in 1999. While in New England, she co-founded Tally Systems, a bootstrap-funded software company. At Tally she wore many hats, including software development, sales, technical support, quality assurance, and product management. In 1995 she promoted herself from Senior VP of Product Management to entry level programmer in order to have more time and flexibility. She remained on the board of Tally until its sale to Novell in 2005. Here in Wyoming, she has worked as a freelance programmer and has started a new software products company. Sheridan Programmers Guild publishes apps, websites, and ebooks and takes on a small number of custom projects for clients each year.

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