Why We Can’t Remember Anything: The Map App Effect

I recently returned from one of those glorious, soul-nourishing visits with friends at a rustic Maine lake retreat. There were ten of us, including a potter, baker, furniture maker, history professor, math genius, and a cat named Smitty. I’m guessing that our free-ranging dinner conversation was typical of the sort you’d hear among such people in similar settings: Many salient and non-valid points were made on various topics of local and global interest, friendly disagreements erupted and, almost always, someone (usually me) ended up consulting Google to check the “facts.” A quick scan of my phone’s search history indicates that among the points that were thusly verified: Einstein was 26 when he published the theory of relativity, UC Berkeley offers health insurance to its graduate students, bonded leather is not really leather, Comcast is a very hated company, and the language spoken on the Frisian Islands off the Dutch coast is the foreign dialect closest to English.

It’s been two days since my trip to Maine. I like to think I have a fairly decent memory. Yet, before I checked my search results in order to write this post, I would not have been able to recall Albert’s age when he arrived at E=MC2, nor any details of Berkeley’s insurance policy. In fact, most of the factoids that were part of our dinner conversation (other than the Comcast diatribe) were probably wiped from my memory by the next morning. It would be easy to attribute such lapses to the frequent clinking of wine glasses during dinner or the profound lack of intersection between the Frisian language, etc. and my daily life. But I suspect something more noteworthy and pervasive is afoot. Though I have no data points (or Wikipedia entry) to prove it, I suggest that this tendency to quickly forget a burning question once it has been answered may be, if not a post-internet phenomenon, then one that has been exacerbated by the incredible speed with which we can now solve mysteries. When it comes to memory, I suspect that time and effort may matter. If you can satisfy an intellectual itch so quickly, perhaps you are less likely to remember that you ever had it.

Just before my Maine vacation I spoke at a workshop where we discussed the work of Bluma Ziegernik, a renowned Russian psychologist of the early-ish 20th century and discoverer of a psychological phenomenon fittingly called the Ziegernik Effect. Like many of her fellow psychology students in 1920s Vienna, Bluma spent a good deal of time in bustling coffeehouses. Her “aha!” moment began with the observation that the Viennese waiters seemed to have remarkable powers of recall. Not ones for keeping a pencil tucked behind the ear, these proud professionals committed their customers’ orders to memory. If stopped on their way to the kitchen, they could probably recite with accurate detail which strudel Lady X at table Y preferred and how Gentleman Z took his coffee. And yet, if asked the very same questions after delivering these treats, they would draw a blank. Once they no longer needed to remember the orders, they quickly forgot them. Thus we have the Ziegernik Effect which states that we have far more trenchant memories for uncompleted tasks than for finished business. An unanswered question gnaws at us, and this very uncertainty and lack of resolution gives it staying power. Once an issue is settled, we forget and move on.

The Ziegernik Effect is a well-established part of the psychological lexicon. I am now proposing a modern corollary for the Age of Google: the Silver Effect, which states that the less effort it takes to find the answer to a question, the more likely we are to promptly forget it. Had my research into the Fresian language required an afternoon of sneezing amid musky library shelves, I doubt I would have so quickly erased its existence from my mind. As a corollary to the Silver Effect, I offer the Map App Effect which states that the ease of finding directions via GPS is making it impossible for us to remember them. Before satellites dotted the sky, accurate directions often required consulting more than one paper map, and gathering pertinent details from other humans like, “there will be a cemetery on the left” or, “turn right after the big yellow silo.” Once you acquired such critical information you really didn’t want to forget it. Sometimes you even wrote it down. And as any teacher will tell you, taking notes helps you remember. But now, thanks to the Map App Effect, I must advise you not to ask me which exit to take off of the Grand Central Parkway in Queens if you wish to make a last-minute course correction and spring for the 59th Street Bridge instead of the Triboro. Yes, unlike Siri I still refer to these bridges by their old (true) names. But my memory of how to get from one to the other is fading.

Does the Silver Effect have any basis in fact? Has it already been noted, discredited or named for someone with far more suitable credentials? No doubt I could end these mysteries with a few quick finger taps. But I’m going to resist that temptation for a while. I figure that if I stew over these questions before resolving them, I just might remember the answers.


Beaches, Cars and Chris Christie’s Bridge Problem–only in NJ

Tourists who arrive in New Jersey hoping to meet wiseguys, cavort with vindictive, cleavage-heaving housewives, and jam with Bruce at the Stone Pony leave disappointed. Late-night talk shows and reality TV have so caricatured New Jersey that we have, well, a reputation. It’s undeserved. Like the rest of the country, our state is filled with low-drama folks who are just trying to get by. We can forgive out-of-staters for misunderstanding this fundamental truth about life here. But we shouldn’t forgive our governor.

New Jersey is so overshadowed by that prettier, sexier, richer diva to our north that we have no major city or media outlet to call our own (apologies to Newark and NJ 12, but, c’mon). What we did have was a brash governor whose in-your-face bravado told the rest of the world that Jersey mattered.  To many, Governor Christie was like the biggest,  toughest kid on the block who chose to defend the weak and unpopular rather than give them wedgies But it turns out he’s just another bully, with enormous self-regard, a petty vindictive streak and contempt for the people he governs.  If there are any two defining Jersey experiences they are, for better and worse, summer at the shore and rush hour on the George Washington Bridge.  Chris Christie rose to national prominence by rescuing our beach vacations. He should suffer political death for putting us in a traffic jam.

5 Tips for Hosting Your First “Empty Nest Fest”

The night before my firstborn left for his freshman year of college he strolled into the kitchen with his mp3 player blasting — one earbud was tucked into his left ear and the other was wedged in his bellybutton. I gave him the requisite maternal smile and eye roll, but felt a pang — his goofy boy humor would no longer be part of my everyday life. Sure, he’d be back — but not for good. The next week I commiserated over lunch with my friend Kumi, whose son had also just left. Both of us had made child-rearing the central focus of our lives and now, between bites of Cobb salad, we had to acknowledge the wrenching reality: If you do it well enough, parenthood is a tragic occupation. In the end, you lose. Everyday your child grows away from you until finally he or she is ready to leave you behind.

“I don’t want to sit around moping,” I said.

“We have to do something,” said Kumi.

And so, the Empty Nest Fest was born. We emailed this simple invitation far and wide: “You’re invited to brunch in honor of all us parents with newly empty — or emptying — nests. Let’s celebrate (and commiserate) together!”

A month later, my home was jam-packed with parents going through the same bittersweet transition. They brought an abundance of bagels, salads and beer. By the end I felt replenished, refreshed and overstuffed with pasta. Plus, I’d made new friends. Judging from the “thank you” emails we received, our guests felt equally uplifted.

Two years later, Kumi and I are facing perhaps a bigger challenge: we’ve just dropped off our youngest children at freshman dorms hundreds of miles away. So very soon, we’ll be sending out a new batch of Empty Nest Fest invites. As I look forward to Empty Nest Fest 2.0, here’s my advice on how to hold one of these gatherings yourself. I hope you’ll leave comments with your own tips:

Wait a bit. Don’t host a gathering the first week after your child leaves. Better to hold off for a month or even two. The party will arrive just as life is getting back to routine and the emptiness hits home.

Join forces. If possible, hold the party with a friend whose social circle doesn’t completely overlap yours. Meeting new people and expanding your social life is a great antidote to feeling that your world has gotten smaller, a common experience after kids leave.

Go pot luck. Unless whipping up complicated culinary spectaculars is your form of therapy, ask all guests to bring something to eat or drink. Doing so will allow you to focus on the party, not the oven. And, by contributing, your guests will feel more invested in the event, which creates a warmer and more communal atmosphere.

Expand the guest list. This is a “party with a purpose” so it’s a great excuse to invite friendly acquaintances you wish you saw more often — like your former bleacher-mates from your sons’ Little League days, or the fellow class parent you keep running into at the supermarket at 6 pm, each of you promising to get together “soon.”

Replay it. I’m out of children, but that’s no reason I can’t throw one of these parties every year. Right?

Nan Silver is a journalist and New York Times bestselling author specializing in psychology, parenting and health. With Dr. John Gottman she is co-author of the books What Makes Love Last? and The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work. Connect with her at nansilver.net and on twitter @parentingxtwo.

My daughter is leaving for college–and wants to pierce her bellybutton. Uh-oh.

“Don’t freak out but I’m getting my bellybutton pierced after work. Just letting you know.”

That’s the text my 18-year-old daughter sent me from her summer job at a frozen yogurt shop, while I was in our living room, aka: College-Packing Central. I read her message while surrounded by heaps of laundry, half-filled duffel bags and the move-in information packet from the university whose dorm she and her mountain of stuff would somehow be squeezing into the following week.

When it comes to teens and any body piercing that goes “beyond the earlobes,” I fall decidedly into the “Just. No!!” end of the parenting spectrum. Still, I controlled the urge to hop in the car and confront her amid the frozen yogurt dispensaries.I focused on the fact that she hadn’t actually pierced her bellybutton yet–she had sent me a warning that she was planning to. This meant something. Didn’t it?

I once interviewed a psychologist who claimed that you could decipher the underlying truth of a parent/teen relationship by viewing the content of their text messages. It was supposed to be a great sign if these interactions didn’t just convey information but were attempts to initiate conversation. I didn’t like hearing this because if you scrolled through my hundreds of text messages to my daughter you’d find that 80 percent contained just three words: “where are you?” while the remaining 20 percent read, “WHERE ARE YOU!!?” Despite such texts, I like to think she and I have a relatively healthy and standard parent-teen relationship–meaning, she hardly tells me anything, except the really important things. So, surely, this text was her way of starting a conversation about piercing. Viewed in context–a mere week before she’d be leaving home–perhaps this text wasn’t really “about” belly piercing at all. No! I thought…it’s a cry for help. She wants me to stop her. She wants to know she still has a parent who sets limits.

My interpretation made sense. Piercing her bellybutton despite my objections is hardly my daughter’s style. She’s the kind of exemplary kid–kind, loving, level-headed, brilliant– who could turn me into an offensively smug parent if I actually thought my mothering skills were wholly responsible. But I have too much respect for the impact of random circumstance, background and biology to take much credit for my children’s successes. More than once when confronted over a minor infraction she has said to me, “You have no idea how lucky you are to have a kid like me.” Truth is, I do know. And I know I’m going to miss her. It’s been bittersweet this summer, watching her transition from a high school student to a full-time young adult who has to get up every morning, don that frozen-yogurt-selling uniform, get out the door, and drive herself to and from work. It was a beginning taste of adulthood for her, and a daily reminder to me that we are centuries past the days when I could keep the TV permanently fixed on PBS and the catchphrase “because I said so” said it all.

But motherhood is forever and, as her text implied, don’t “good kids” still like to know that there’s a strong parent available to bump up against? So I messaged her back: “let’s talk about it when you get home.” My plan was to sit her down for a calm discussion of the pros and cons. Unfortunately, the night before, she and I had begun to binge-watch the hilarious but short-lived sit-com <a href=”http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0193676/” target=”_hplink”><em>Freaks and Geeks</em></a>. So as soon as she walked through the door I found myself involuntarily channeling one of our favorite characters, the cranky Dad (played by <a href=”http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0280886/?ref_=tt_cl_t9″ target=”_hplink”>Joe Flaherty</a>) whose over-the-top admonitions to his teens included lines like, “Janis Joplin didn’t do her homework. And where is she now? Dead!” So the “calm discussion” was somehow replaced by The Parental Rant: “You CANNOT pierce your bellybutton! It’s an abomination against your body! You could get a blood infection! Boys will think you’re a slut! You’ll have a hole in your stomach for life! What will I tell Grandma?”

When I was done my daughter looked at me calmly and said, “If I knew you were gonna react this way I wouldn’t have told you.”

“You told me because you wanted me to stop you!!”

She rolled her eyes. “Mom, I was just being polite! I knew you’d be unhappy but I didn’t want to hide it from you. I’m 18. I’m getting my bellybutton pierced.”

And she did.

Apologies to anyone expecting me to wrap this up by expounding on the Parenting Lesson I Have Learned. There really isn’t one. My daughter is my second and last child to leave home. If there’s any take-away it’s that my parenting is pretty much done. Yes, I could have threatened to withhold college funds if she pierced her bellybutton (as one friend suggested). But we would both know I didn’t mean it. In the end, it’s her body and in the decades ahead she’s going to make plenty of independent decisions about it without consulting me. I hope she’ll consider my advice, but she is no longer under my command. Parenthood is forever, but childhood is not.

On my daughter’s graduation, I’m grading myself–and everybody else

My daughter’s elegant e-bay-purchased prom dress hangs in her bedroom. On Facebook, other moms are posting pics of their high school seniors wearing big smiles and Tshirts announcing their college choices. My gmail box is filled with notices from the high school urging me to buy ribbons, sunglasses and seat cushions to “help support the class of 2013”  or to remember important dates: the Prom, the Vocal Concert, the Awards Program, Commencement. But my favorite email is the one that’s already triggering empty-nest nostalgia with its reminder from the principal that there will be “discipline consequences” if students arrive at school wearing “sagging pants, hats, short shorts, short skirts, bare midriffs, tank tops, spaghetti straps, strapless tops and dresses.”

Final transcripts will be sent home soon, but I’m pausing for a moment to give a report card to myself and my fellow mothers. These are the women with whom I once traded labor stories and mastitis remedies before we moved on to debating the grand consequences of allowing our kids to play with guns, sticks, Barbies, Pokemon cards, Game Boys. We worried: Should we let them eat sugary cereal? Lunchables? Surf the Net? How come Katy has the only kid who will eat kale? What happens if they don’t get the “good” Kindergarten teacher, or don’t test into the “better” math class? Is it safe for them to go to this party or that concert? Can we trust them behind the wheel?

Whatever their age or stage, we worried about whether we were doing a good enough job as mothers. So what grade should we and their fathers earn? Here’s the final report card:

Our children did amazingly well on their SATs, they got busted for having hashish in their backpacks, captained their school’s soccer teams, grappled with dyslexia and ADHD, got detention, won awards for their poetry and community service, pierced their tongues, tattooed their arms, taught themselves Russian, failed algebra, acted like mean girls, stood up to mean girls, played too many video games, spent their vacation time volunteering at food banks, quit the hockey team, learned to dance, posted knuckle-headed comments on Facebook, took up photography, and floored us with both their lame-brained antics and stunning acts of kindness and generosity.

As parents we earn an H for Human. Our kids are growing up to be as gloriously, beautifully imperfect as we are. And today, I think that’s more than good enough.

If your child is a recent or current graduate I’d love to hear from you. How do you think you’ve done? Do you wish you had raised them differently? In the end, how much of a difference do all of those “micro decisions” that make  up the minutiae of parenting really matter?

For new moms, parenting well together a key to relationship satisfaction

When a new mother feels her partner agrees on how to raise their baby, not only the child benefits–she does, too. That’s the big takeaway from the latest study to come out of Kent State’s ongoing “Baby Transitions in Marital Exchanges” research (aka Baby T.I.M.E.). In the latest work, doctoral candidate Brian Don and other researchers interviewed 77 mostly middle-class and married heterosexual couples twice, at four and nine months after the birth of their first baby.  Women who initially felt that their partner shared their parenting style (meaning they felt they were pretty much on the same page about childcare values, philosophy and practices) were both more satisfied with their relationship and less likely to be depressed at the second assessment than were the other new moms. For new dads, this sense of being on the same team didn’t influence how happy they were in the relationship, but it was associated with less likelihood of depression too. Why were women’s view of their relationship more influenced by their partner’s perception of the parenting connection than men’s? Researchers theorize that “because of the importance of the parenting role to mothers, they may place more emphasis and value on parenting
agreement than fathers.” Previous research suggests that co-parenting attitudes tend to remain fixed even as the child grows and presents parents with more complex challenges. So working on the parenting alliance from the start can pay dividends for both parents over the years.

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Marathon bomber: A mother’s worst nightmare

I have a 19 year old son. If you took a random survey of his friends I don’t think they would describe him much differently from the character sketch offered by the shocked friends of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who, as I write this, is the subject of a massive manhunt in a shut-down Boston. Those who know Dzhokhar paint him as friendly, well-adjusted, laid-back, sociable, smart, a good student. And all the while, he and his brother were allegedly planning mass murder. His mother insists that the police must have their facts wrong. “This is a set up” she tells CNN. “If there was anyone who would know [he was planning an attack] it would be me. He would never hide it from me.” The woman is not delusional–she’s a mother in denial. If it turned out I had raised two killers, I would be in denial, too. And if I ever could get past that wall of “NO! It can’t be!” in my mind and my heart, I would spend every moment replaying the past, trying to figure out what happened, where it all went wrong, where I went wrong as a mother.

But identity is slippery, and not always evident to the people who think they know someone best. My mother likes to say that we raise our children and then wind up being no more than spectators with little influence over their lives. We cannot dictate their fate, much less exert control over the choices they make. We root for them, celebrate their successes, lament the difficulties they face and hope they arrive at reasonable decisions. But we do all of this from the sidelines.

I’m sure the forensic psychologists will soon step in with their educated perspectives. What “turned” a boy with so much promise? My amateur analysis is that the suspected Boston bombers were two young men with wholly different motivations. The older one was a sociopath who cloaked his contempt for others in a radical ideology. The younger was a malleable follower with psychological vulnerabilities who was manipulated by his brother. He was salvageable. To use a Columbine analogy, the Boston bombers were Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold–a sociopath and a troubled teen–but raised in the same family. Over the coming weeks, and probably years, terrorism experts will pour over minutiae of DzhokharTsareva’s family life. No doubt we will learn about family feuds, rivalries and jealousies, the harrowing history of their early years in a troubled region of the world, their parents’ psychological scars. But in the end we may never be able to fathom what led Dzhokvar to sling a bomb-laden backpack jauntily over one shoulder and strut through the crowds at the Boston Marathon–behind his big brother.

It’s a mother’s worst nightmare.


Uncovering those hidden childcare chores: 3 steps toward changing your family life

I love the on-going discussion about the hidden tasks of childcare and family life. (For a great run-down, see Lisa Belkin’s Leaning Together on Huff Post.) We can debate endlessly why so many working mothers feel drained and exploited. Meanwhile, at Atlantic.com philosophy professor Alexandra Bradner has offered up a list of common “underground” home and family chores. Identifying these activities and acknowledging that they are work is a first step toward rebalancing the power, reshuffling priorities and reinventing family life in ways that benefit everybody. To get the conversation started in your own home, try this quick exercise:

STEP 1. Read over the list below of childcare-related chores (based in part on Bradner’s) and initial those that you mostly do. For each, write down your time estimate for completing them (including prep work).

STEP 2. Put your partner’s initials next to the chores that are more often accomplished by him or her–and add a time estimate for this work as well. (If you share a task equally, put both of your initials.)

STEP 3. This is the most important step! Ask your partner to complete steps 1 and 2 on a separate screen or sheet of paper. And then compare your results.

To what degree do your perceptions of who does what (and how long it takes) jive? Any surprises? Use the results to have a calm, respectful, problem-solving discussion. Even if you can’t shift the load right away, just having all of these tasks acknowledged as work and duly appreciated can be powerful for a couple.

Let me know if you found this exercise helpful and any categories that you would add to the list.


Daily Childcare

  • Getting kids ready for school, dropping them off, meeting the bus in the afternoon.
  • Preparing school snacks or lunches
  • Putting kids to bed
  • Middle-of-the-night kid care
  • Managing babysitter or nanny
  • Overseeing hygiene (bathing, teeth-brushing)
  • Transportation to and from school or daycare
  • Coordinating and attending doctor appts.
  • Other_________

General Parenting

  • Staying home with sick kids
  • Emotional work (resolving playground disputes, offering advice, proactively keeping the peace among siblings)
  • Disciplining kids (establishing and enforcing consequences for misbehavior)
  • Other___________

Kids activities: Planning, coordinating, equipping and transportation for…

  • After school programs or tutoring
  • Weekend activities or religious school
  • Summer camp
  • Playdates
  • Other_________

School-related tasks

  • communicating with teachers and administrators
  • delivering forgotten items
  • overseeing homework
  •  volunteering
  • attending sporting events, school plays, etc.
  • Other____________

Family-life chores

  • General family scheduling
  • Family vacation planning and packing
  • Party planning and holiday preparation (cards, meals, decorations, cleaning)
  • General social outreach (interacting with neighbors, making plans with friends, etc.)Documenting family history (taking and organizing photos)
  • Communication with extended family (calling mom, mailing gifts, etc.)
  • Other_______________

Financial chores

  • Long-term financial planning (for retirement, college tuition, etc.)
  • Bill paying
  • Tax preparation
  • Health insurance matters
  • General shopping and consumer research (for clothing, gifts, technology, media, etc.)
  • Other_______________

A divorce coach’s 6 tips on parenting–for married couples

Here’s a great exercise for married couples. Imagine you’ve split up and have to work out the nitty-gritty of parenting together with two separate households. Which rules would be the same? Which different? How would you negotiate homework, discipline, bed times, the ratio of kale vs Pop-Tarts in your child’s diet? It’s common wisdom that when parents divorce, being able to cooperate and respect each other as co-parents makes all the difference in how the kids fare. Many married parents don’t realize the same holds true for their children. Even in families where parents rate their marriage highly, the kids suffer when there are constant disagreements about parenting. But unlike divorcing couples, if you’re happily married yet come from different parenting planets, no court order is going to usher you into counseling or parenting classes. You aren’t “forced” to learn the fine art of negotiation, or to work on respecting each others values.

If your and your spouse’s co-parenting skills could use help, why not try some advice aimed at divorced parents? Case in point: this recent post from divorce coach Rosalind Sedacca on Huff Post. Below I’ve applied some of her co-parenting rules to married couples:

1. Make sure kids get alone-time with both parents. Even in intact families there can be an imbalance in how much parenting each partner does. This is especially true when there’s a stay-at-home parent and a breadwinner. It’s easy to fall into a pattern where the out-of-the-house parent doesn’t spend one-on-one time with each kid. But it’s critical that both parents make it a priority for each child to have a relationship with both parents individually.

2. Don’t argue about the kids in front of the kids.  No child wants to be caught in parental crossfire.

3. Don’t turn your child into a confidante or friend. When you’re pissed off at your spouse, don’t confide in or vent to your kid. It’s not her problem and shouldn’t be her burden.

4. Don’t make your child the messenger. You’re right, it’s not fair that somehow you’re always the one who gets stuck driving the soccer-practice carpools. But if you want your spouse to know that tonight is his or her turn, communicate directly. Don’t put your kid in the middle. Your child shouldn’t have to start sentences with,  “Mommy  [or Daddy] says you have to…”

5. Don’t think like a solo parent. Even if only one parent works outside the home, you are still equally responsible for your child’s well-being. Neither of you should make major parenting decisions alone.

6. Be flexible.  As Sedacca says, “Every time you bend, go with the flow, compromise and cooperate with your co-parent you model the kind of behaviors that benefit both of you in the long-term. Flexibility reduces defensiveness and builds bridges toward better parenting solutions. Remember, every time you forgive and indulge irritating behavior without creating an issue, you are doing it to make life easier for your child. Isn’t he or she worth it?”