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Why it’s OK (and completely normal) to be a scatterbrain

We’ve all been there. You’re heading out the door to pop to the shops or pick the kids up from school and you can’t for the life of you remember where your keys are. You scurry around, burrowing under cushions, delving into coat pockets, and peering under the couch, but, alas, the keys are nowhere to be found.

If you’re anything like me, these moments are usually followed by pangs of frustration and guilt. I have a PhD. I can do hard things. So why do I struggle with the simple things?

A recent conversation with a friend made me realise that I’m not the only one who questions my intelligence over forgotten appointments and lost receipts. It got me wondering why our brains allow us to forget things. And also, why we beat ourselves up about it. Is this a mental ‘defect’, or a biological phenomenon?

On my quest to learn more, I excitedly began swimming through the oceans of research available around brain function, memory and daily living. Soon enough, I came to a happy realisation…

That it’s OK (and completely normal) to be a scatterbrain.

Not just OK, in fact, but being a scatterbrain might actually be a really good thing. And here’s why…

Research performed by neuroscientist Robert Thatcher suggests that having a ‘disorganised brain’ and letting your mind wander can be helpful when it comes to creativity.1,2 If you have a ‘disorganised mind’ that tends to have multiple thoughts and ideas flowing through it, you are more likely to have creative breakthroughs due to the sheer volume of ideas bouncing off each other (Brownian-motion style!). While your mind is wandering, it may secretly be solving complex problems without you even realising it.

But what about lapses in memory?

Well, our brains are simply not designed to remember everything!3 The day-to-day tasks that our brains need to execute have changed dramatically over time. If you were a club-wielding caveman living in the pre-historic era, your brain’s focus would have been on immediate challenges, such as outrunning danger and not starving.3 You didn’t really need to remember which brand of foot cream Gramps preferred from Boots.

As humans evolved and we developed language and speech, our ability to memorise other types of information (that were not just related to survival) came in handy. Developing memory allowed us to communicate with others and learn how to behave based on their behaviour.3 Without masses of external stimulation, people could reflect upon and savour what they were learning. Sounds like bliss!

The more ‘civilized’ humans became, the more information our brains had to process.3 In the modern world we are faced with an unrelenting excess of information through books, TV shows, smartphones, computer games and, of course, we can access the internet from almost anywhere now. We have more knowledge and sources of knowledge at our fingertips than we ever would have thought possible. Our brains simply have not evolved to retain this amount of information.3

If we relied 100% on our brains to remember everything on a daily basis, we’d be completely overwhelmed. Our brains need horsepower to process information, create language, be innovative, solve complex problems AND remember things. And although recent research has shown that our brains have a much larger capacity for storing memories than was previously believed, our process of storing memories is slower than our experience of the world.4 This means that it’s not actually possible (at this moment in time) for the brain to store all of the information it receives, as memory.4

On top of all this, the way most of us live and work means we are constantly bombarded with information and distractions, and we are often expected to multitask. Although multitasking may make you feel like a superstar, in reality, the true outcomes are completely counterintuitive.5 Our brains are not built to multitask, our brains are designed to do one thing at a time.5 Multitasking produces shallower thinking, reduces creativity, increases errors and reduces our ability to block out irrelevant information.5

But what does this all mean? It means that you shouldn’t feel bad if you forget where your keys are now and again. It certainly isn’t a reflection of your intelligence or ability to function in a complex world. It’s a reflection of how our brains have evolved, how multifaceted its functions are, and how our societies bombard us with limitless information.

So, the next time you can’t remember where your keys are, maybe give yourself a break, take a few deep breaths, relax, make a cuppa, and – before you know it – they’ll turn up 😊.

References:

  1. https://time.com/3852042/disorganized-brain-good-creativity/ Accessed May 2021.
  2. https://www.bakadesuyo.com/2012/05/does-a-wandering-mind-make-you-more-creative/ Accessed May 2021.
  3. https://www.lifehack.org/614336/human-brains-arent-designed-to-remember-things Accessed May 2021.
  4. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-estimate-boosts-the-human-brain-s-memory-capacity-10-fold/ Accessed May 2021.
  5. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20161208-you-probably-suffer-from-scattered-brain-syndrome Accessed May 2021.