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Cognition and perception, Creativity, Memory

Unfinished business

James Demetre with a short story inspired by the Zeigarnik Effect.

31 August 2023

On the eve of his 65th birthday, Dr Benjamin Zeigarnik sat in a state of aimless agitation in his office in Senate House. His long career as a forensic psychologist at the University of London did not impinge on his current thoughts, neither did his occasionally more exciting forays as a consultant to the Metropolitan Police. Staring at a dried ink-stain on his desk, Benjamin felt the tentacles of his brain reach out to various phantoms in turn, each time failing to connect or grasp a firm image or idea. What was wrong with him today?

The normally exuberant and sharp-witted psychologist was renowned among his colleagues and students for his imposing presence and colourful past. His tall stature of 6'4'' was accentuated by his silver locks and Rasputinesque beard and it was no surprise to anyone who met him for the first time that a booming, resonant voice emanated from this body. His unexpected mid-lecture loud guffaws by turns amused and terrified his audiences.

Benjamin rubbed at his temples, took some steadying deep breaths and decided to allow his mind to wander whither it will. His mind began to settle on some old well-worn themes to do with his life and career, themes that seemed all the more urgent on the eve of such a momentous birthday. On impulse, he looked up at the portrait of his grandmother hanging on the wall above his desk. Her benign yet knowing smile always reminded him of the Mona Lisa. In recent years he felt as though that smile was a cypher intended just for him. For it was his grandmother, the famous Soviet psychologist Dr Bluma Zeigarnik, who had inspired him to enrol at Moscow State University, where he followed in Bluma's footsteps and studied Psychology.

Looking intently at Bluma's portrait, Benjamin felt a shiver along his back. He realised, possibly for the first time, that he felt a mixture of warmth and anxiety as he gazed at her likeness. Benjamin's father Yuri, who was Bluma's eldest son, often regaled him with the refrain that the sainted Bluma was haunted by demons. Her adolescent struggle with a virulent bout of meningitis must have sensitised her to the fragility of life and nurtured her preoccupations with interruptions in life. Having your husband suddenly carted off to the Lubyanka on spy charges in 1940 couldn't have helped matters either. Maybe much of Benjamin's life was dominated by his need to impress his grandmother… or maybe unconsciously he was motivated by a need to quell Bluma's demons. Even his brief and unhappy spell in an elite special forces unit (Spetsnaz) of the Soviet Army was in retrospect probably an act of rebellion (no Bluma, I will not follow in your footsteps!), which in itself was proof of the power she held over him.

For all its colour and excitement, Benjamin's career had not quite reached the heights of approbation scaled by his grandmother Bluma. For Bluma was the psychologist who had discovered the eponymous 'Zeigarnik Effect' as a student in Berlin.

When Benjamin moved to London almost 40 years ago to continue his studies and career as a psychologist, he was determined to make a splash. His academic work on the psychology of judicial processes raised the occasional controversy; a ripple, but no splash. His ad hoc involvements with the police and security services gained him modest celebrity status in the gutter press and social media. He also gained some notoriety from his periodic advocacy of controversial therapies and interventions, but again, these were storms in teacups at best. As he became older and opportunities to impress became correspondingly fewer, he felt that he had failed to live up to Bluma's expectations. 'My clever Veniamin' she used to say, slowly shaking her head, in an act of negation, or was it a sign of prophetic sadness? In any event, he simply had not measured up to her achievements.

Turning to his well-thumbed copy of Pioneers of Psychology, Benjamin flicked through the pages backwards from the back cover: there it was, the entry for the Zeigarnik Effect. He read the entry for what must have been the tenth time this year. As he intoned each word aloud, he swore never to look at it ever again:

The Zeigarnik Effect is named after Bluma Zeigarnik, a Soviet psychologist who obtained her PhD at the University of Berlin in the 1920's. Her experimental work came to light in the inter-war years (Zeigarnik, B., 1927; Zeigarnik, A. V., 2007) and continues to generate fresh experimentation, application and controversy almost a century later. Through some initial everyday observations and more formal experiments, Zeigarnik proposed that people are more likely to recall activities that have been interrupted than activities that have been completed.

Everyday examples would include restaurant waiters better recalling food orders that had not yet been served. A more contemporary example would be our apparent tendency to remember a new telephone number up until the point at which we have successfully completed a call, at which point the number escapes us. Experimental demonstrations of the Zeigarnik Effect involved comparisons of people's recollection of task materials for interrupted tasks and completed tasks. Some of the tasks Zeigarnik used were quite simple (e.g. threading beads of various colours), while others were more cognitively challenging (various puzzles and intellectual tasks). In any event, she found that people were more likely to recall the task materials when they had been prevented from completing the task.

Zeigarnik believed that interruption  increased motivation to see the task through to completion. This motive state ensured that the task was kept in mind. The modern practice of introducing mid-lesson classroom breaks in schools was inspired by her work.

In his youth, Benjamin had been co-opted as one of Bluma's experimental participants and 50 years on could still recall the 'mission' that he was prevented from completing. Why had this memory stayed with him for so long? He occasionally wondered whether his motivation to work in Psychology had more to do with solving this mystery than it had to do with following in his grandmother's distinguished footsteps. He remained sceptical about Bluma's motivational theory of task-interruption despite failing to come up with a cogent alternative.

Three loud staccato knocks on the door shook Benjamin from his reverie. He beckoned in his visitor while turning in his swivel chair to face the door. As the door opened to reveal his visitor, he jumped to his feet with joy. "Ah… Zelana! What a surprise!" Benjamin engulfed his favourite cousin in a warm embrace. Memories of their childhood encounters, both playful and adversarial, flooded his mind. Zelana reminded him so much of Bluma: diminutive in stature, but huge in spirit.

"I wasn't expecting to see you before tonight's party." 

"Happy birthday! I wanted to catch you alone Benji before you get into your party persona. It's been so long and I've missed you!"

"Me too Zelana. I often wish you'd moved to London instead of Amsterdam. What is it with you and that city? I know you think of yourself as Bohemian, but why that city of stinking canals and cheap sex toys?"

"You know full-well why I moved there Benji. I followed my heart and now I feel at home there with my cosmopolitan friends and psychotherapy practice."

Benjamin produced a mock grimace in preparation for his mildly menacing tone of questioning. "Ah yes! How is that going? Are you still dabbling in the dark arts of psychoanalysis?"

"You know full-well that I'm neither a dabbler nor a psychoanalyst!"

An awkward silence ensued as first Zelana then Benjamin looked up at Bluma Zeigarnik's portrait.

"Benji… you know why else I'm here?"

Benjamin's puzzled expression was followed by a theatrical shrug and a histrionic bellow of laughter. "Of course I know; unfinished business!"

"Yes Benji, unfinished business! I'm so glad you remember our little assignment from all those years ago."

"You know Zelana, I almost forgot. I was grappling with something earlier, something that I knew was important, but I couldn't quite grasp what it was. My memory isn't quite what it used to be."

"Well, I'm here now Benji. What can you tell me? I need to know what you can remember now that you've reached that special age. Happy birthday again!"

"You mean, almost reached that special age…" Benjamin looked at his watch. "I still have seven hours and forty minutes of life as a sixty-four-year-old remaining!"

"So you want me to come back in seven hours and thirty-nine minutes?"

Benjamin peered at his cousin Zelana in a resigned sort of way. "No, no, no! A few hours won't make any difference." Rubbing his temples and sighing audibly, Benjamin stared ahead as if in a trance. "I remember more than I would like, to tell you the truth, even though I've tried not to think about it for the past fifty years. Here it goes: I left Grandma Bluma's sitting room and opened the door leading to her study. The walls were a crimson red… garishly so. From the doorway I could see this large soldier doll on her desk… the one she promised I could keep. The soldier was dressed in Red Army dress uniform and held his right hand in a salute. I was about to step into the study when the door suddenly slammed shut. I could hear a key turning in the lock and then Grandma tapped me on the shoulder and gave me one of her enigmatic smiles."

Zelana gazed at Benjamin with an uncertain smile. She reached into her bag and retrieved a scuffed and yellowing envelope. Breaking the seal, she pulled out a letter and unfolded it with a flourish. Gazing at the Cyrillic script, she nodded her head and then gave Benjamin a wide smile. "Well done cousin! Your recollections coincide exactly with Grandma Bluma's account of that day's events, though she says nothing about garish red walls in this experimental protocol!" Zelana burst into a fit of nervous giggles as she refolded the protocol and put it back in the envelope.

"Your turn now Zelana! Let's see how a sixty-year-old remembers her ten-year-old self's frustrations! If memory serves, I think I placed your experimental protocol in my personal file in that cabinet when I first had this office 22 years ago. Why don't you fire away and then I'll check for it?" Benjamin beamed with encouragement as Zelana nervously cleared her throat.

"Um… well. I remember it was a hot and sunny day and Grandma Bluma gave me a nice cold glass of lemonade. She said that I could go into the kitchen where a wrapped present was waiting for me on the table. I vaguely recall the wrapping paper had some kind of floral pattern. I undid the yellow ribbon carefully and then gently pulled apart the wrapping paper, revealing a brown wooden box. As I reached for the lid, I heard a sudden and loud cry from the doorway. Grandma told me to leave the present where it was and to help her find her pen. That's it. I never got to see what was inside that box on that day, but grandma gave it to me sometime later, I'm not sure how long after. To be honest, I don't recall being very pleased with the present… some kind of toy bear I think."

Benjamin gazed at his cousin with a mixture of admiration and alarm.  All the decades that he had devoted to research in psychology had simply not prepared him for this. How had he and Zelana managed to be so fluent about events that had occurred half a century ago?

It was now time to check Zelana's account against Bluma's protocol. Benjamin walked unsteadily to his grey metal filing cabinet and crouched down to the bottom drawer, labelled "Personal Research". He spent several minutes pulling out sundry pieces of paper until his fingers alighted on a small envelope.

"I think this is it Zelana."

Benjamin unsealed the envelope and took out the protocol. It had been a while since he had read any Russian and he hesitated a little as his eyes danced randomly around the Cyrillic script. After a couple of minutes, he nodded his head vigorously and gave Zelana an approving smile.

"Well done cousin! Almost everything you recalled is confirmed by Grandma Bluma's protocol… except… your present was a Russian soldier doll, probably the one she promised me!"

Benjamin and Zelana both released their tension amid fits of laughter that left them struggling to catch their breath. The laughter was all too soon replaced by furrowed brows and feelings of disorientation and puzzlement. Zelana was the first to break the silence.

"This is really weird Benji. The one error I made was to do with the toy I was eventually given… just like in Grandma Bluma's 'Effect': when a goal is achieved, our memories are vaguer than when it is frustrated. But why did she want to subject us to this experiment?"

Benjamin tugged at his luxuriant beard as his face betrayed by turns a mixture of bemusement and amusement. "Well, I suppose for one thing, this must set some kind of world record for the longevity of the Zeigarnik Effect. I remember reading some criticisms a few years ago that claimed the Zeigarnik Effect was only a phenomenon relating to short-term memory. Bluma did not believe in leaving behind unfinished business; this is her rebuttal from the grave, so to speak!"

Zelana was not convinced by Benjamin's analysis. "But how is anyone going to know about this? How can she do a long-term memory experiment with just two people, who happen to be her relatives, which has no chance of being published or otherwise seeing the light of day? Besides, Grandma Bluma was nice! I can't imagine her subjecting us to the cruelty of disappointment on purpose."

"But Zelana, how can you even begin to think that this is all unintended? Were the protocols in their little envelopes unintended? Did their arrival in the post with Bluma's cover letter 30 years ago occur by happenstance? I don't know about you, but I lost the cover letter she sent me a long time ago. Something along the lines that my cousin Zelana will seek me out on the eve of my 65th birthday and will ask me to remember details about our last visit to her Moscow apartment. She was also emphatic about keeping the envelope safe… Zelana, how can you even begin to doubt that Bluma had planned all this?"

Zelana could not quite bring herself to meet Benjamin's gaze. She turned her head away from Benjamin and towards the sun-lit window as she tried for the first time to really make sense of this wholly strange episode. For 30 years it had hovered at the edge of her consciousness, never being given full access to her keen intelligence. Doubtless the events of that day in the Moscow apartment had registered in one form or another in some of her dreams down the years, but she managed to bottle it all up, all the while feeling she had some kind of important appointment with destiny. She slowly turned her head toward Benjamin and with sudden realisation, raised her voice to arouse him from his own reverie.

"Is this the reason why you invited me to London for your birthday? You haven't invited me here for years, but now…"

A panic-stricken Benjamin returned Zelana's intense gaze. "I… I… don't know! Zelana, I simply don't know! This whole episode has left me feeling… lost… unbalanced. You didn't even reply to my e-mail invitation, so I didn't even know you were coming over."

"I wouldn't miss it for the world Benji… I wanted to surprise you; and it is good to see you."

"Well I'm glad you came Zelana. Seeing you is as much a cause for celebration as my attainment of a venerable age."

"I don't know if you're aware, but I invited quite a few other family members and friends from our Moscow days too, as well as many recent friends. To be pedestrian about it, I've probably been more generous with the invitations this year because I'm about to reach a grand age and want to have everyone who was important in my life near me. That must be the reason… probably not the long arm of the Zeigarnik Effect!"

Benjamin's ironic smile belied the inner turmoil that was threatening to ruin the evening's planned celebrations. Just as he was beginning the process of strait-jacketing himself into his more usual jovial and authoritative persona, he noticed Zelana pointedly taking the protocol out of her envelope, unfolding it and waving it in front of him.

"Did you read what was written on the back? Mine says: please send code BENJZEIG and results to Dr M Kornilova, Faculty of Psychology, Lomonsov Moscow State University, Moscow 125009."

Benjamin, his sense of panic fully reawakened, fumbled to open his own envelope. "Oh God! The same, except the code is ZELAZEIG! So someone is supposed to be collecting and analysing the results! Who is this Dr Kornilova?"

Before Zelana could respond, the sound of shuffling feet could be heard outside the door, followed by a hesitant series of soft knocks. As the door opened slowly, Benjamin saw the smiling face of his uncle Vladimir. "Surprise, Benji!"

"Uncle! I had no idea you were coming over! Zelana didn't tell me!"

The sprightly 88-year-old younger son of Bluma nodded his head as he bounded into the room. "Ahh… daughters never think of their old papa! To be fair, I didn't tell anyone I was coming. Let me get a closer look at you Benji."

The diminutive Vladimir glanced at the letter crumpled in his nephew's outsize hand as he clutched Benjamin's waist and buried his face in his sternum. "Happy birthday Benji! All fully grown! It's been years and I'm so happy to see you."

Disengaging momentarily from Benjamin, the retired physicist gazed lovingly at his daughter, his eyes flitting momentarily to the crisply folded letter held in her hand. "Zelana, Zelana! I haven't seen you in two years!" With tears cascading down his cheeks, Vladimir gripped Zelana in a bear-hug and planted passionate kisses on both of her cheeks.

As father and daughter took a step back, Benjamin could see that Zelana was overcome with emotion. "Let's get both of you seated and I'll make you a coffee."

A now-sheepish Vladimir glanced uncertainly at Benjamin. "Do you have anything stronger here Benji? I think we could all use a drink."

Benjamin absent-mindedly nodded his head, trying to make sense of his uncle's state of mind. From what he could recall, Vladimir was known to be very indifferent to alcohol. "Yes, some nice malt whisky?"

The tensions occasioned by the family reunion eased as Benjamin poured each of them a third helping of the amber nectar. Nothing much was said, as though this was a brief interlude before more momentous matters were discussed. Benjamin was reminded of his days in the military when vodka served the same purpose.

Vladimir lifted his head hesitantly and gazed at Zelana before allowing his gaze to rest on Benjamimn's cavernous blue eyes. "Benji, I have something for you." The slight slurring of his speech struck Benjamin as a little comical. Reaching into a brown scuffed leather rucksack, Vladimir pulled out a package and held it within stretching distance of Benjamin.

"A present! How thoughtful of you uncle… you didn't need…"

"This isn't from me Benji. You'll get my present later. This is from someone who couldn't make it here today."

As Benjamin was about to grasp the sky blue package, Vladimir's eyes widened and he jerkily withdrew the package from his grasp. "I almost forgot! Please read the card first." Fumbling with a zip in the inner recesses of his rucksack, he finally pulled out a pristine sky blue envelope that matched the package.

Holding the envelope in his outsized hands, Benjamin stared uncomprehendingly at the name on the front: Veniamin. He felt a wave of shivers run along the length of his spine and back up to the crown of his head. He pulled out a paper knife from his desk drawer and slowly and deliberately slit open the envelope and pulled out the card. He gazed at the picture on the front of the card, entering into a hypnotic trance as he did so. Something was stopping him from opening the card. He continued to stare at the colourful drawing of children running about in a school playground… he knew this image was significant, but he didn't know why.

While Vladimir snored gently, Zelana interrupted Benjamin's fugue with a loud cough. "Are you alright Benji? Aren't you going to read what's inside? I can't wait to find out who it's from."  

Vladimir woke with a start and both men suddenly snapped to attention and looked to Zelana for enlightenment. At last, Benjamin slowly turned the card and began to decipher the Cyrillic script.

To my adorable grandson Veniamin,

I am very sorry I can't be with you on what I hope is a very happy day for you. Even your tough Babushka can't live to be 120 years old! It's very strange writing this to think that my 65-year-old grandson is reading this  when you were only 15 when I saw you yesterday!

My clever Veniamin has probably guessed that he and his cousin Zelana were part of a mysterious long-term experiment. Your lively mind always kept me on my toes even when you were a preschooler. You always used to say "Are you sure Babushka?" whenever I tried to bribe you with sweets or tried to explain some phenomenon or other to you. Even at that tender age, you seemed to have a finely developed sense of scepticism.

If I am right in thinking that you believe yourself to be a part of one of my experiments, then I must apologise. It was all a ruse cooked up by your uncle Vladimir, who was trying to lift my chronically lowered spirits. I hope you do remember me as someone who enjoyed playing the occasional prank. By the way, the Dr Kornilova that you might have been led to believe was collating the data is even older than me and would be long-dead as you read this. Please explain all this to Zelana as well.

I bid you farewell my Veniamin and hope all your days are filled with happiness. Now you can open your present…I know you've waited a long time for it!  I am very happy now thinking that for once I have managed to fool you!

Your loving babushka, Bluma xxx

Benjamin suddenly felt as though someone had pulled out all of his wiring. Instinctively he sought solace in re-reading his grandmother's words. After the second reading he didn't know whether to laugh or to cry. What madness! No wonder he was entranced by the picture on the front of the card; his grandma's study in Moscow had been festooned with such pictures.

Gazing at a perplexed Zelana, Benjamin turned and reached out for the package that was resting on a very sheepish Vladimir's lap. Tearing at the wrapping with abandon, he uncovered a doll… a Soviet Red Army soldier doll. "I might have guessed!"


The events described in this story are fictitious. Benjamin and Zelana Zeigarnik are the fictional grandchildren of the renowned (and real) Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik. In the story, I imagine in extremis the impact of having this purportedly indomitable, humorous and determined experimental psychologist as a grandmother. Being inspired by the successes of one's relatives is not always a good thing, especially if it is conceivable that you may be co-opted into one of their projects!

Bluma Zeigarnik (née Gerstein) was born in 1901 and died in 1988. She had two sons: Vladimir and Yuri, fictional versions of whom appear in the story. She studied Psychology in Berlin, where she undertook her famous experiments on memory for interrupted and uninterrupted tasks. She published this work in German [Zeigarnic, B. (1927). Das Behalten erledigter und unerledigter Handlungen [On finished and unfinished tasks]. Psychologische Forschung, 9, 1-85.]

The eponymous term 'Zeigarnik Effect' has since been used by psychologists to refer to the finding that interrupted tasks are better recalled than uninterrupted tasks. Applied psychologists have taken inspiration from this in formulating interventions aimed at improving motivation and learning.

On her return to Russia, Zeigarnik worked in a number of clinical and experimental fields of Psychology, spending much of her career at Moscow State University. Despite her eminence and in common with many others, her life during the Stalin years was disrupted personally and professionally. During a period in which Anti-German and anti-capitalist policies were heightened, her German academic qualifications were brought into question and she was periodically suspended from her post. Her husband was accused of spying for Germany and was incarcerated for ten years in the notorious Lubyanka prison  [Zeigarnik, A.V. (2007). Bluma Zeigarnik: A memoir. Gestalt Theory, 29(3), 256-268.]

Bluma Zeigarnik's reputed humour, mischievousness and kindness were overshadowed by periods of gloom and despondency in her middle years, but undaunted, she continued to teach at Moscow State University into her 80s!

  • James Demetre is a retired developmental psychologist who most recently taught at the University of Greenwich. He holds a BA in Psychology (Sheffield) and a PhD (Strathclyde). He is the author of children's novels under the series title The Paul Kanner Mysteries. [email protected]


Think you could write your own short story, inspired by psychological theory, research or practice? Preferably 2000 words max. We'd like to hear from you. Reach out on [email protected].