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Is it a memory lapse or something else?

The scenarios are all too familiar for some: you exit the grocery store and can't find your car; you just had your keys and now they're gone; you read a few pages in your new book but might as well have stared at blank pages.

Are these all signs of memory lapses? Maybe, but likely not. What we commonly interpret to be memory fallacies are often breakdowns in the early stages of information processing that occur before that info can be stored. In other words, you didn't forget it because you never processed it in the first place!

Far before information can be safely stored for long-term retrieval, several prerequisite steps must occur. We'll refer to the lost car in the parking lot example to better understand this process:

  1. Sensory Processing: The input must be perceived and processed by our sensory-perceptual memory. (The sight of your car in the parking lot.)

    • First, sensory input, like sound, touch, image, or pain, must meet or surpass our sensory thresholds. Our sensory thresholds are the amount or intensity of stimuli necessary for perception, which are unique to our individual nervous systems.

    • Next, the stimuli must bypass filters. We are constantly experiencing sensory input and couldn't possibly process it all, nor would doing so serve value to us so only the "relevant" stuff sticks.

  2. Attention: The stimuli/information must be held in our conscious, undivided attention. (Paying attention to what your car in the parking lot looks like rather than looking at your phone or thinking about dinner.)

  3. Encoding/Working Memory: Attended info is consciously manipulated and transformed into a format that can be stored. (Making mental notes or connections; "I parked a little too close to the cart corral.")

  4. Organization and Consolidation: Only once information has been encoded can it then be organized and archived in our brains. (Organizing this info with previous parking experiences or encounters with carts.)

  5. Retrieval: Finally, we can consciously bring stored information back to our attention in a meaningful way. (Exiting the parking lot and picturing the location of your car.)

As you can see, there are many steps where a breakdown can occur. We'll explore each stage further below.

Sensory Processing:

Sensory-perceptual memory is reliant on the ability to process relevant sensory input while filtering out the rest. The filters through which sensory input is sifted are unique to an individual's previous experience and nervous system. Neurodivergent individuals commonly have sensory differences that impact how sensory input is received, filtered, and processed. These individuals commonly have higher or lower thresholds for sensory awareness, meaning they may miss or be more acutely aware of sensory input.


There are several types of attention and just as many scenarios that can result in attention breakdown. Attention, by definition, requires conscious effort to direct and maintain awareness of stimuli. Conscious attention is finite and limited. We simply don't have the capacity to attend to all the information we are exposed to, so we latch onto only that which we perceive to be most important. One could infer how we could easily miss out on where the keys were left if his/her attention was on the blog post he/she was reading while unconsciously setting them down. It is both distraction and difference in how we filter information that affects what we attend and therefore remember. Keep in mind, too, that this complex cognitive process is highly vulnerable to fatigue, stress, and heightened emotional states.

Encoding/Working Memory:

This stage involves the conscious manipulation and transformation of information into a format that our brains can store. The information must remain in our conscious attention to be stored. There are many processes we consciously and unconsciously recruit to hold information in our attention/working memory to promote it to storage. Previous experience, rehearsal, emotional significance, and interest are among the most critical processes and can help explain why some information is recalled while other doesn't make the cut. Working memory capacity, or the amount of info/time that info can be held and manipulated, is often limited in neurodivergent individuals.


Once information bypasses the thresholds and filters of conscious awareness and has been manipulated long enough to be encoded, it finally consolidates into the more permanent, limitless storage system we know as long-term memory. Context, repetition, organization, and elaboration (connecting novel information to that already stored) all aid in the consolidation process.


The process of retrieval or accessing information that has been stored in long-term memory varies amongst types. LTM can be either explicit (conscious--like facts or life events) or implicit (unconscious-- like how to ride a bike or responded to a phone ringing) with implicit generally considered to be more durable. To access explicit information, we either "recall" it or "recognize it." Recall happens absent external cues or context, with recognition reliant on the former. A breakdown in retrieval is the truest sense of a memory lapse.


So, next time you can't find your car in the parking lot, think. Where did the breakdown occur? Did you look at your parking spot? Did you consciously attend to the space? Did you make any meaningful connections? Did you make a mental note? Did you use context cues in the parking lot to find your spot? If all of this seems like more effort than it's worth, maybe it's time for a compensatory strategy. Let's talk about some good ones for you. :)

-Rachel Robertson, MOT, OTR/L

Certified Brain Injury Specialist

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