Task, Interrupted

Remember the line from George Harrison’s 1966 song, “I Want to Tell You,” (off of Revolver), “I feel hung up but I don’t know why”? Well, a psychologist living in Russia at the time, Blyuma Wulfovna Zeigarnik, did. (…know why George Harrison felt hung up.) When she was a graduate student in Berlin in the 20s, her dissertation adviser, Kurt Lewin (father of Field Psychology, as in “If I don’t get my way, I’m going to leave the field, possibly taking my football with me”) noticed that a waiter who had not yet received payment for a patron’s order remembered it more accurately, than the orders for which he had been paid. “BFD,” I hear you remark. “Why remember a fait accompli?”

Not the point. Why is it, that we do remember (obsess about, have nightmares about, dump cortisol about) even trivial bits of unfinished business?

Here’s an example from last week, that is still intruding on our domestic tranquility, humiliating me for my failure to solve the mystery, and making me fear for my sanity (a bit). A few months ago I read about forage balls for overweight or fast-eating cats. Originally designed for pigs, to simulate rooting about for food in the wild, these plastic globes with adjustable slots must be batted about by the forager, for each ort of food to be released. Zanizbar is fed in a bathroom, which sounds like a bowling alley as he biffs his ball from wall to wall. Napster, however, is fed in a former-bedroom-now-box-room, full of nooks & crannies (as they say in English muffin ads). It’s like an Easter egg hunt each morning, trying to find where he’s hidden his ball. First an orange one “disappeared.” After expending more Therbligs trying to find it than the task deserved, I gave up and substituted a pink ball (that we had bought for Ruth, before realizing that she was too old, blind, and thin, to be required to forage for her supper).

Then the pink ball went missing…along with my skepticism regarding the fairies, who hide objects, just to create chaos. The room, though cluttered, is finite. The door is only shut during feedings, however. Perhaps the balls had made their way to another upstairs room? Believe me, both Chris & I have searched. Maybe they rolled downstairs? Let me check behind the piano, again. We eagerly await the holiday return of our daughters, so we can put them on the case.

Having gone out and spent another $8 on a blue forage ball has not, as hoped, loosened the grip of our compulsion to hunt for the Two That Got Away. We are in thrall to the Zeigarnik Effect.

Serialized books & movies, cliffhanger season-enders on TV, crossword puzzles & that Japanese number game I can’t even pronounce, much less get into, all rely on this powerful need for closure. Oddly enough, “difficulty sustaining attention in…or finishing…tasks” is listed as the hallmark symptom of Kangaroo Brain (as I fondly refer to my ADD); but clearly, there is a missing qualifier here: “assigned (tasks).”

For the interrupted tasks that we assign ourselves, there is no “forget-about-it.” Just ask Lili, at the window, as she awaits the next sighting of those interloping Goldens, whom a locked front door prevented her from interdicting this morning.

You’ll have to excuse me, now. I’ve just thought of another place to look…

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Filed under magical thinking, Zeigarnik effect

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