I leave work midday to scoop up my sick toddler from daycare. He's listless and cranky, but we'll be home soon. On my doorstep, I dig around in my bag for my keys, as always. Only this time, no keys.
I look at my frigid child who could vomit at any moment.
Why me? Why now?
It's a howl of helplessness that echoes across doorsteps this time of the year as harried multitaskers in the dead of winter find themselves forgetting the most basic things. What's wrong with us?
According to brain experts, my recent predicament was entirely predictable the moment I left the house that morning. I had more on my mind than usual, not the least of which was whether my kid may or may not have been ill.
And while I live and work in the world of instant updates, 24-hour information and gadgets that respond to me in nanoseconds, my brain has its limits. And I had exceeded them. There was no app for this.
"Your short-term memory, which you use to do everything, can only hold five to nine items at a time," says Douglas Merrill, a former Google executive and the author of Getting Organized in the Google Era. "It doesn't matter how smart you are and how much you practise, if you have 10 items you are storing in short-term memory, you will drop one of them."
Relying on your long-term memory as a hard drive isn't much better. When we swap items back and forth from long- to short-term memory, we lose something with each shift, says the Los Angeles-based Dr. Merrill, who has a PhD in cognitive science. "All these things get dropped or broken or twisted, so by multitasking, we're actually worse at every individual task."
Although we know this gets worse as we age, it appears we can, sadly, speed up that process by overloading our brains.
In her current research using both rats and humans, psychologist Eve De Rosa has been able to mimic attention problems common to older people and Alzheimer's patients in younger subjects - merely by dividing their focus between two or three images and asking them questions about them all at once.
The University of Toronto professor is looking into the role of the neurochemical acetylcholine, which wanes as we age, in this process. Others are looking at the way sleep deprivation and seasonal effects can fog brain function. So we may be able to blame our forgetfulness, to some extent, on the weather. Circadian rhythms and the hormone melatonin are known to play a role in the worsening symptoms of Alzheimer patients, for instance, Dr. De Rosa says. And it's not surprising that a series of Finnish studies of Arctic peoples found a link between cold temperatures and dim light and impaired performance on simple cognitive tasks.
The speed and noise of our lives also pushes the boundaries of the human brain.
"What modern life does is it reveals it more," she says. "Because we have so much more going on, and we're pulling our attention a bit more, it's making us more vulnerable in terms of showing these deficits. I don't think we have the ability to compensate any more."
Being a parent can add to the number of things that divide our attention, says Dr. De Rosa, mother of a four-year-old.
That's how it felt the day that Willa Black was left on her doorstep, sans keys. The Toronto mother of three had lined up last-minute summer child care for her youngest, who was 10, so she could attend a business meeting. She was all dressed and ready to go when the friend who was caring for her son arrived. Ms. Black walked to the car to thank her. Her son ran out of the house, slamming the locked door behind him and jumped in. They drove off.
"I turn around and go, 'Okay. I'm locked out,' " she says. "There you are, feeling confident that you found a solution to your problem. Things today were going to fall in place. Weren't you clever to have sorted yourself out. Then, boom. Not so clever after all."
Sonia Goulart was a tired new mom squeezing in one last errand on a busy day during the Christmas season a few years ago when she had her worst key caper.
After attending a birthday party with her sister-in-law, each with a baby in tow, she stopped at a grocery store to place an order. Ms. Goulart's infant was (finally!) sleeping in her car seat, so she asked her sister-in-law to pull her car up behind hers and watch both infants.
She left the car running and grabbed her wallet out of the passenger side and, out of habit, locked that door. When she came back she realized she had locked all the doors.
Roadside assistance told her the wait might be six hours. "I was like, are you kidding me? I've got a baby in the car who is sound asleep and the ignition is still running. I'm thinking carbon monoxide," the Toronto resident says.
She saw a police station right across the street, so she called. Cue the fire trucks and police cars roaring to the scene. In tears, she asked the fire supervisor if he's going to call child services.
"He said, 'No, this happens all the time,' " Ms. Goulart recalls. "The firemen must've all been dads. There was no shaking of the heads."
Indeed, no one is immune. But there are ways to reform. Dr. Merrill says I need to both declutter my mind and clear away the clutter around my keys by, well, hanging them on a nail. Dr. De Rosa suggests asking myself, "What's really important at this moment?"
It's a tactic she says she herself needs to work on. "I always forget my lunch. Sometimes you research the thing you're most affected by."
What you can do
- For keys, have a nail or a bowl. Always put them there. Tell your family to do the same.
- Take a moment to focus before leaving the house or the office: Ask yourself what's really important right now?
- Declutter your mind. That doesn't mean filing - we forget what we've called our files, anyway. Rather, on your computer, for example, just throw all documents in one place and use your desktop search to find them. Back them up online using a service, so you won't lose them if your computer breaks.
- Work on your memory by retrieving in terms of narrative, not facts. It can be easier to access long-term memories this way.