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Where are my keys?

The art of finding lost objects

Where are my keys?

Picture, if you will, two little boys suited up and ready for school, backpacks on, jackets zipped and smiles wide. Let’s even give them both an apple for their teachers. Then imagine their mother frantically overturning couch cushions, crawling underneath the dining-room table and digging through desk drawers, her eyes crazed and sheitel askew. “Where,” she demands to no one and everyone, “are my keys?!?” Welcome to my world. I am a major loser. Be it car keys, wallet, purse, debit card or grip on reality, I inevitably start my day by losing something. And every day I seem to fail the nisayon of handling it with even a modicum of calm and dignity. But apparently I’m not alone. A study in The Wall Street Journal found that the average person misplaces nine items a day. Why is this? Do we just have too much stuff? Not exactly, say the experts. It’s really just natural human error (though in more extreme cases it can be linked to depression or adult ADHD). Genes do come into play, as does fatigue, but a lot of it has to do with good old-fashioned distraction. Says Sumathi Reddy, author of Why We Keep Losing Our Keys, “My maxim is ‘If you put it down, it’s gone.’ Because you’re not thinking of where you put it. You’re thinking of what you’re going to do next.” You’re telling me. Just walking into my house is an exercise in multitasking. Usually I’m holding at least two bags, balancing a baby on my hip and trying to remind my older two to put their jackets in the closet.

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Half the time, I drop my keys wherever just so I don’t drop the baby. It’s no wonder why, when it’s time to leave again, I can never find them. “It’s the breakdown at the interface of attention and memory,” explains Harvard University professor Daniel L. Schacter, author of The Seven Sins of Memory. This can happen either when I don’t imprint in my memory the moment I put down the keys, or later on, when I try to remember where I put them. Memory-making occurs in the hippocampus, the central part of the brain. The hippocampus takes a mental Polaroid shot that is stored in an “album” of neurons, according to Kenneth Norman, psychology professor at Princeton University, and it will “develop” into a memory when triggered by a reminder or a cue. However, if your attention is scattered at a given moment—say, when you leave your phone in the fridge because your five-year-old is making “art” on the floor with raw eggs—your neurons won’t encode that memory. This is why I often discover items in odd places with no recollection of how they got there. There are those hyper-organized people who have a makom kavua or “forget-me-not” spot for everything (I choose not to associate with people like this), but even they can’t always avoid misplacing something in the rapid-fire pace of life. Losing things is universal, part and parcel of the human experience. So when I heard about “findology,” the new science described in the book How to Find Lost Objects, I set out to speak to its author, 66-year-old Michael Solomon of Baltimore. Principle 1: DON’T LOOK FOR IT.

It took me a while to wrap my mind around this. If something’s lost, why would I not try to find it? Because, according to the findologist, if you have no idea where it is, you will end up wasting precious time and energy. “When you lose something, you’re usually quite annoyed with yourself,” Solomon says. “Something’s lost and your first thought is to look for it, to hunt for it in a random, and increasingly frenetic, fashion. This is the most common mistake people make.” He’s more right than I’d like to admit. I don’t know about you, but when I lose something near and dear to me, I tend to panic. There’s none of that composed, systematic searching indicative of a minor problem; when my iPhone disappears, it’s a national emergency. According to Solomon, this isn’t uncommon, but it is a surefire way not to find what you’re looking for. In fact, when you’re in crisis mode, the last thing to do is look for anything. “You need to wait until you’re calm,” Solomon advises. “If you’re not calm, you could look right at something and not see it.” The art of finding, then, has to do with presence of mind. That’s what I really should be looking for before I try to find anything else.Principle 2 is fairly simple: IT’S NOT LOST—I AM. “The problem’s not with the object, the problem’s with you because you’re not approaching this correctly. The truth is, there are no missing objects, only unsystematic searchers.” Like a football player who doesn’t want to fumble, good performance means getting your head in the game. Often, finding a lost object just means shifting your perspective.

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This can be tricky, though, when you’re worried about having to cancel all of your credit cards if your wallet doesn’t turn up. To get into the right frame of mind, Solomon offers Principle 3: REMEMBER THE 3 C’S: COMFORT, CALMNESS AND CONFIDENCE. Before searching for anything, Solomon says, you need to chill out. “Sit down, get comfortable,” Solomon says. “Have a cup of tea, perhaps, or a stick of gum.” (Or in my case, put down the flare gun.) Next, you’ll want to get calm. Take a few deep, cleansing breaths, suggests the findologist, and “empty your mind of any unsettling thoughts. Pretend that the sea is lapping at your feet. Or that you’re sitting in a garden full of birds and flowers.” Feeling good? Excellent. Now comes the dose of confidence. Assure yourself that you will find whatever you’re looking for. “Give yourself the message ‘It’s where it’s supposed to be,’” says Professor Solomon. “Maybe somebody put that coat back up where you’re supposed to put it.” Once you’ve found your happy place, you’re ready to start looking.This brings us to Principle 4: IT’S WHERE IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE. It may seem like a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how many times I have emptied the pockets of every jacket in the house in search of my keys, only to find them hanging on the hook my husband put up so that we wouldn’t lose them. This is why, Solomon says, you should first look in the place where the object is usually kept, “and really look, to make sure it is not just your eyes deceiving you into thinking it’s not there. Sometimes you can look right at an object and you can see it, but you don’t perceive it.” It’s possible you put your shoes back on the rack or that Post-It with the allergist’s phone number right on your desk.

A lot of the time it will be right where it should be. And a lot of the time it won’t. Like in my house, which has a magical force—perhaps the same one that removes one sock from the dryer—that transports objects from where they’re supposed to be to some mystery place that exists to keep the troops entertained. Solomon calls this force “DOMESTIC DRIFT,” Principle 5: “Many objects are kept in a designated or customary place,” he says. “But the reality is that they aren’t always returned there. Instead, they are left wherever they were last used.” This is embarrassingly true, and the reason I find baby socks on the kitchen counter, toothbrushes in my tichel drawer and teacups on every flat surface of the house. It’s not that I’m absent-minded (cough, cough), it’s just that as I’m doing one thing, I am inevitably interrupted by something else. (We moms need to prioritize, and quickly.) Two hours after breaking up a wrestling match for the third time, I will leave the spatula on my son’s bed. So the trick, then, is to think back to when you last used the lost item. Obvious? Yes. But it’s amazing how often that possibility slips my mind. “A lot of my approach is just common sense,” Solomon admits. “If you calm down, the lost object can magically float up in your mind from some lost world. Remember, you haven’t lost it, you’ve misplaced it.” But herein lies the rub. What if you can’t remember where you last used it? Or worse, what if you forget what you’re looking for? If I had a dollar for every time I’ve walked into a room and then stopped and wondered what I’m doing there, I would be able to buy everything I own in triplicate and never lose anything again. (Thankfully, I’m not alone. So popular is this phenomenon that a study at the University of Notre Dame dubbed it the “Doorway Effect.”)This brings us to Principle 6: YOU’RE LOOKING RIGHT AT IT.

Even if you have a clear recollection of where you last saw the desired object, it won’t help much if you forget what you’re looking for. To prevent your brain from falling into one of those black holes, Professor Solomon offers a word of advice: “As you look for your lost item, repeat the name of it to yourself (‘sanity, sanity, sanity...’).” Even if you do manage to remember what you’re searching for, your busy brain may not actually register that the object has been found. “It is possible to look directly at a missing object and not see it,” Solomon warns. “This is due to the agitated state of mind that often accompanies a misplacement. Go back and look again. It may be staring you in the face.” In some cases, the item you’ve lost is where you left it, but you can’t see it because it’s covered up by something else. Case in point: I put my baby’s jacket in the front closet, but then his big brothers threw their backpacks in haphazardly (Heaven forbid they should use the hooks), knocking the jacket to the ground and covering it. Needless to say, there were fireworks when it was time to leave for violin lessons. Solomon calls this the “CAMOUFLAGE EFFECT,” Principle 7: In these cases, make sure to look underneath and around everything in the object’s area; it may just have gotten shuffled out of view. The last four principles are pretty straightforward. You lost it, so somewhere in your mind you know where it is. “THINK BACK,” says Solomon in Principle 8: “You were there when the object was put down and consigned to oblivion, so you must have a memory, however faint, of where this happened.” Once you remember (or think you do), go back to the loss location and search—thoroughly. “LOOK ONCE, LOOK WELL”  is Principle 9: The professor advises, “Don’t go round in circles. Once you’ve checked a site, don’t go back and check it again.

No matter how promising a site, if the object wasn’t there the first time, it won’t be there the second.” As you’re looking, limit your search to THE EUREKA ZONE, Principle 10: This principle states that while objects may get moved around, they don’t usually travel farther than 18 inches from their original location. So if you have a good idea where your object should be, break out a ruler and search the surrounding 18 inches as intensely as you can. If that still doesn’t work, then it’s time to put  Principle 11 into practice: TAIL THYSELF. “Recreate the crime,” Solomon says, by walking through where you’ve been. In the case of my missing keys, I can safely assume they are usually somewhere in the vicinity of my front door since I am likely to put them down almost as soon as I walk in. So if I want to find my keys, I have to retrace my steps, past the bags from Trader Joe’s, past my purse on the floor to the pile of mail I brought in and laid on the counter. Voilà—my keys.But that’s assuming the lost object is actually findable.  In some cases, it isn’t. This is Principle 12: IT WASN’T YOU. “When all else has failed, explore the possibility that your object hasn’t been misplaced; it’s been misappropriated,” the professor says. Maybe your kids “borrowed” your muffin. Or your copy of Ami traveled with your husband into the living room. Or someone was kind enough to clear those loose papers off your desk (sorry, wishful thinking). If this is the case, a conversation may be in order —but that is for another article. There is a 13th principle, by the way: QUE SERA SERA. The sad reality is that sometimes things disappear and they don’t come back. Like my youth. If this is the case, it’s time to accept the facts and move on with life. It’s possible that what you’re looking for may magically reappear one day, but if it doesn’t, almost everything is replaceable. Now, where did I park my car...?