How do you remember to remember?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

postit note
Help your memory out and write down a reminder on a Post-it note!

Oh no, you accidentally slept in this morning and you’re running late for school! You’ve never gotten ready so fast. After minutes of scrambling around to get your clothes, brushing your teeth quicker than you ever thought possible, and hopping on each foot to get those shoes on, you’re finally rushing out of the door. Just as it closes behind you, though, you remember you left your homework on your desk! Wait a second. You’re entire morning was a blur of jumping around and getting your stuff together. You’re schoolwork was the last thing on your mind (after checking out the Clubhouse Daily, of course), so how did you remember at all?

Prospective memory, or remembering to remember, has been a mystery to scientists since forever. However, psychologists from Washington University in St. Louis believe they have discovered the answer. They got a group of participants together and gave them a simple set of instructions. After seeing a word on a screen, the test subjects had to push one of two buttons to place them into categories. If there was a word that didn’t seem to fit into either category, the participants had to remember to push a third button. This extra step of remembering to remember, called top-down processing, forced them to use their prospective memory.

The psychologists scanned their brains using a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine to see the parts responsible for this type of memory. Apparently, there were two different sections that were used when categorizing the words and using top-down processing. One part of the brain – in this case, the one responsible for categorizing the words – was similar to putting something by the door the night before you left your house, so you didn’t have to pay attention too much. You know, like a note taped to the door saying “Don’t forget your lunch!” The part of the brain responsible for top-down processing, on the other hand, actually used a lot of focus to get the job done.

“These findings suggest that people could make use of several different strategies to accomplish prospective memory tasks,” says Mark McDaniel, a member of the study team.

According to these results, it’s better to leave your homework by the door the night before school. It’s much more effortless than remembering to remember. You’ll definitely save a few minutes of panic.