Washington: Ever wonder
why extremely capable surgeons leave scissors in the patient's
gut, after successfully concluding a difficult operation? It's not
carelessness but failure of prospective memory, according to a US
R. Key Dismukes, scientist at the NASA Ames Research Centre,
highlights various ways in which the nitty-gritty of daily tasks
interacts with the normal cognitive processes, to produce memory
failures that sometimes have disastrous consequences, the journal
Current Directions in Psychological Science reports.
Why would such highly skilled professionals forget to perform a
task they have executed without difficulty thousands of times
before? Researchers reveal that these lapses may not reflect
carelessness or lack of skill but are failures of prospective
Common in daily life, these memory lapses are mostly annoying, but
can have tragic consequences.
"Every summer several infants die in hot cars when parents leave
the car, forgetting the child is sleeping quietly in the back
seat," Dismukes points out, according to a NASA statement.
Several airline catastrophes, too, have occurred because pilots
were interrupted while performing critical pre-flight tasks. After
the interruption was over, the pilots skipped to the next task,
not realising that the interrupted tasks hadn't been finished.
Examples of prospective memory involve intending to do something
at a particular time, such as going to a doctor's appointment, or
on a particular occasion, such as congratulating a friend the next
time you see her.
However, much of what we intend to do in our everyday lives,
whether at home or at work, involves habitual tasks repeated over
time. And when it comes to these kinds of habitual tasks, our
intentions may not be explicit.
We usually don't, for example, form an explicit intention to
insert the key in the ignition every time we drive a car -- the
intention is implicit in our habitual routine of driving,
according to the study.
In previous research, Dismukes and colleagues identified several
types of situations that can lead to prospective memory failures.
They found that interruptions and disruptions to habitual
processes, which are irritating enough in everyday life, can be
fatal in some occupational settings.
For all the negative attention that multitasking has received in
recent years, it is perhaps no surprise that multitasking is also
a major cause of prospective memory failures. We seem to have
adapted fairly well to juggling several tasks simultaneously, the
To guard against prospective memory failures and their potentially
disastrous consequences, professionals in aviation and medicine
now rely on specific memory tools, including checklists.
Research also reveals that identifying when and where a specific
intention will be carried out can help guard against such failures
in everyday life.
"Rather than blaming individuals for inadvertent lapses in
prospective memory, organisations can improve safety by supporting
the use of these measures," argues Dismukes.