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PUMPING IRONY: Another Senior Moment

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A new study explains why geezers get distracted. We may just be paying attention to the wrong things.

We had a pretty generous downpour the other night, one of our annual late-spring deluges that always reminds me that I haven’t gotten around to cleaning out the gutters. So last weekend, I hauled out the extension ladder, clambered up to roof level with the garden hose in tow, and took care of business. Shortly thereafter, though, I found myself wandering through a classic “senior moment.”

This involved four objects of quite distinctive sizes and shapes — an extension ladder, a garden hose, a pair of work gloves, and a watering can — and a desire to return them to their former location with a minimum of wasted motion. The ladder aspect of the project was fairly straightforward: carry it back to the garage and hang it up. Then take off the work gloves and lay them on the nearby shelf . . . except I had already removed the gloves and left them on the ground next to where the garden hose is stored.

I wound up the hose and noticed the gloves, while also noticing the watering can and remembering that the bird baths could use a refill. And rather than unwinding the recently wound-up hose, I filled the watering can and replenished the front yard bath, refilled the can for the backyard baths, and strolled purposefully past the garage, which reminded me that the work gloves, which I had meant to carry with me — thus saving me a few steps — were still languishing back by the garden hose.

You could chalk this up to the sort of general absent-mindedness that has been know to afflict people of my age, but researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have dug a bit deeper into the senior-moment phenomenon and come up with a plausible explanation: It’s all about clutter control.

Our older brains, they found, tend to subconsciously collect irrelevant stuff — and this gets in the way of remembering more relevant details. This is certainly true in my case. There are probably situations in which recalling Mickey Mantle’s batting average in 1956 would offer some advantage, for instance, but I’m hard pressed to imagine what they would be. Still, it remains lodged in my memory banks, just in case.

Researchers also found that young people don’t bother with useless information. This tells me that when I began collecting baseball cards as a grade-schooler and subsequently discovered Mickey Mantle’s 1956 batting average, I must’ve figured it was a pretty vital bit of knowledge.

But I’m not sure I can blame my childhood obsession with baseball stats for the incident with the work gloves. My aging brain is packed with irrelevant data. That’s just a sign that I’ve been paying attention — except when I’m not.

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