From the next room, I hear the kettle click off: quietly, unobtrusively, even modestly, unlike the stovetop models that shriek bloody murder when they’re ready. As my hearing gradually morphs into a state of less than full reliability, I’ve considered changing things up for the impossible-to-miss version, but so far so good.
Heading back to the kitchen to make my morning tea — not a mere beverage but rather the very stuff of consciousness — I wonder whether I already put the teabags in the pot. On one or two occasions recently I have found clear hot water in my teapot after the required three minutes of steeping. Sigh. This is the latest sign that my mental acuity, like the auditory, is also morphing into a state of less-than-full reliability.
Or is it?
Decades ago at work, a colleague past retirement age told us stories from his previous careers. For today’s purposes, the one that matters was the occasional and inexplicable failure of trained and experienced airport workers to stop to request clearance from Ground Control before driving onto or across an active runway.
It was a big mistake — a fatal one in the wrong circumstances — and yet the drivers could never explain why it had happened, or what they were thinking. Were they distracted? Not so much. Inattentive? They wouldn’t have said so. It just . . . happened. Or didn’t happen, more accurately. A critical safety procedure — one that was obvious to them by logic, drilled into them by training, reinforced by written procedures, and habituated by years of flawless execution — had suddenly failed. It wasn’t even that they forgot, exactly: They just didn’t do it.
Any habitual action can be susceptible to this failure. Did I take that morning pill? Unplug the iron? Lock the door as I was leaving? I have done all those things, certainly and repetitively and a multitude of times, but did I do them today? The path of memory is so well-worn that I really can’t say whether I’m remembering this instance or all the other years’ worth of instances. Without checking, who can say?
And so, where we can, we make ways to check. We use pill minders, one compartment for each day or applicable dosing interval. We add another human to the chain, betting that both won’t fail the checklist at the same time.
Where it’s hard to check or checklist performance, we develop other ways to mitigate the risk. We build appliances with fail-safe, auto-off switches triggered by a period of inactivity. We design-in really loud “I’m done” noises as an un-bypass-able feature.
Where it doesn’t matter much, we just take the occasional hit and keep going. This morning, as it turned out, the teabags were in the pot. I’d say I remember putting them there, but that would be less than the full truth.
I concur that any habitual action can lead to failure, regardless of age and regardless of results of the failure.
Most of our failures are meaningless, however we are quick to condemn others – to wit – child left in a car. We are quick to “memory problems” with appliances, I am not sure about vehicles.
Eric – Shudder. Yes, those kid-forgotten-in-car stories are all too easy to believe. I expect future vehicles will ping and say, “You just turned off the car. Make sure XX people exit, since that’s how many came in.”
Habitual actions are the hardest to remember regarding a specific instance. The habit that gets them done holds an excess of memories of having done it. Today? Unremarkable. As in, cannot remember this specific instance. Just part of being human. Hope you enjoyed your tea – a habit worth treasuring.
Judith – We find ourselves looking at the vitamin bottle and saying, “Did I just take one?” It’s a good thing there are some technological assists for this (they’re never quite full solutions). And yes, tea is a treasure.
I have grown sufficiently skeptical about my memory that I have resorted to checklists, taped to the frame of my front door. There’ s one for daily trips; one for day hiking; one for overnight hiking/camping.
That doesn’t make the checklists infallible. The last camping trip, I managed to forget (augh!) my deodorant and toothpaste. The time before, I forgot my sleeping bag. Double augh! My friends patched together enough moth-eaten blankets, shawls, beach towels, and bag liners that I slept reasonably well for three nights.
A friend, a civilian pilot, deliberately kept a checklist in his cockpit. He insisted on reading it aloud, every time, so that he couldn’t just overlook some crucial item.
Jim T – No toiletries? No sleeping bag? Arggh indeed. I’ve taken to staging really-don’t-want-to-forget items in one place. That helps, but you’re right – nothing is infallible. (My late mother-in-law had a “going to the lake” checklist [or maybe it covered any overnight trip] on a piece of cardboard from a pair of nylon stockings, I think. As she consulted it on our way out the door, she always pointed out the “water the plant” item. She hadn’t had a plant to water in 20 years.)
Ask Cathal about the avocado in the bread box…..
Mary – Oops. Now that’s a habit not to get into.