In 1999, famous musician Yo-Yo Ma was traveling from New York’s Central Park to Fifth Avenue to prepare for a concert later in Brooklyn. He reached his destination and as his taxi drove away, Ma realized he had left his $2.5 million, 266-year-old cello in the trunk of the cab.
This type of forgetfulness, or absent-mindedness, occurs when you're not paying close enough attention.
Absent-mindedness is a normal part of aging. However, when it becomes chronic or lost objects no longer have meaning, it might be time to get an assessment from a physician.
Absent-mindedness is one of the normal age-related memory problems described by Harvard Health Publishing and based on "The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers" by Daniel Schacter.
It is closely related to transience memory, where the details of an occurrence fade over time.
When someone has an episode of absent-mindedness, the information is simply overlooked at the point of recall.
Regularly misplacing keys or eyeglasses or missing an appointment are common issues with our aging memories. The information never made it from our working memory into our long-term memory because we become distracted or are just not paying attention at the moment.
When we forget to do something at a prescribed time, such as taking medications or going to an appointment or event, psychologists call that prospective memory — remembering something you need to do in the future. In these cases, it is helpful to place cues and reminders, such as notes with explicit directions, in optimal places, or set a reminder alarm on a cellphone.
Other factors that contribute to absent-mindedness include stress, sleep deprivation, burnout and multitasking.
A joint report presented by the National Alliance for Caregiving and AARP found that 36% of family caregivers reported high emotional stress and 17% reported high physical strain. Chronic exposure to stress impairs memory function and cognitive reasoning, leading to absent-mindedness.
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, sleep deprivation can lead to depression, irritability, anxiety, forgetfulness and fuzzy thinking. Chronically disrupted sleep can have a lasting impact on physical and cognitive health.
Caregiver burnout, a total physical and emotional exhaustion experienced by caregivers, affects certain aspects of memory. Caregivers have difficulty focusing, suffer fatigue, anxiety and depression. Absent-mindedness can become a normal occurrence.
Lastly, as caregivers juggle a multiple of duties in caring for loved ones, they are constantly overwhelmed and anxious. Trying to do numerous things at one time can lead inevitably lead to distraction.
“The human brain can hold about seven pieces of information for a 30-second period,” according to John Medina, author of "Brain Rules." “Without re-exposing or reminding yourself of where you left that missing set of keys, the memory is fleeting. Constant distraction from the task at hand has a significant impact on memory and may even impact overall cognition.”
Everyone loses track of keys or eyeglasses — or even a cello — from time to time. Yo-Yo Ma noted he was tired and distracted from a previous night’s concert, which caused his absent-mindedness. Thankfully, his cherished instrument was found using his taxi receipt.