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 study.
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 memory.
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 study says.
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.