Sep 282015
Card catalog illustrates vagaries of memories

The vagaries of memory: we think of it acting like a card catalog, but, sadly, it’s not.

The vagaries of memories are well-documented, and sometimes disconcerting. When we remember an odd fact or experience, sometimes researching memory recall can help you understand the situation.

Yesterday, riding in the car with my husband, I observed a young man waiting for the pedestrian light. His profile sparked a memory out of nowhere. “That looks like Terry Michelakis*,” I told my husband. Hubby gave me his famed single raised eyebrow, a feat that only our dog can mimic, implying I would need to fill him in on the inner workings of my brain for that comment to make sense. As I explained that Terry was a kid with whom I grew up and about whom I hadn’t thought about him in at least 30 years, the eyebrow lowered, but hubby still looked a little bewildered.

If he was impressed by my recall of a childhood classmate’s full name, the next conversation served to un-impress him. I was trying to explain to him my latest effort to MacGyver a repair around the house instead of calling a repairperson, who, as a sort, generally want to be paid—just for showing up. The explanation would probably bore you to tears, but it involves the word funnel. Which I just could not, for the life of me, come up with. So instead of naming the object, I had to say, “I used one of those things we have in the kitchen, you know, (eyebrow up, again) that are kind of cone shaped, and you use them when you want to pour something from a container with a large opening to a bottle with a small opening.

“You mean a funnel?”

“Yes. Clearly I do.”

Somehow, I expect a husband of 25 years to do a better job of intuiting the things I want to say, so I won’t have to struggle so much to spit them out. Irrational, I know, but there it is.

Thinking back on the situation, I’m still a little baffled. Why did I think of Terry Michelakis? We attended the same schools, but were never close. How could I come up with his whole name?

The visual cue doesn’t count. I had one for a funnel too. I was visualizing the funneling process.

And it’s not my word reversal problem, where I’ll occasionally substitute another noun for the one I meant to say, usually not noticing the substitution until I see blank looks on people’s faces. (Hey, at least they’re listening.)

Looking up the phenomenon of not being able to remember a word–thanks Google, my friend—I find an article that makes my “tip-of-the-tongue lapse” even more of a head-scratcher. Apparently, I’m less likely than the average American to have these moments. According to Ewen Callaway at the New Scientist, such tip-of-the-tongue lapses are more likely to occur to mono-linguists—people who only speak one language. Furthermore, rarity should play a role in one’s inability to recall. In other words, uncommon words are normally more difficult to remember than common ones. Since I use “funnel” (the word and object) on a semi-regular basis and don’t think I’ve uttered Terry Michelakis since 1979, Mr. Callaway’s article actually causes me more concern.

Further research results in further befuddlement. According to Paul King, a neuroscientist at the Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, tip-of-the-tongue phenomena are often “elicited by proper names.”

My brain did the opposite of what scientists might expect it to do. A part of me isn’t surprised.

The best explanation, perhaps, is that my brain is a hot mess for which normal norms don’t apply. Furthermore, it’s entirely possible that all the cells of my cerebral cortex were still high-fiving earch other after my I came out with Terry Michelakis’ name, and were thus too busy to produce the word “funnel.”

I’m going with that one.

I’m also going to continue and read and research, although I admit this time, I came up short.

Whatever the vagaries of memory are, they—and our brains—are pretty incredible.

*My childhood friend’s name has been changed, just in case he’s not cool with me blogging about him. 🙂

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