That Person Who Was In That Thing

This morning, somewhere between sleeping and being awake, I was trying to remember Dolly Parton’s name. I could see her in my mind’s eye, but I couldn’t recall her name. I knew the shape of her first name and that it had two syllables and that it probably ended in “y”, but I couldn’t remember the sound of it.

I thought of Molly, Buddy, Maddy, Bridey, and other variations on that theme, but none of them felt right. So, I decided to go alphabetically. Annie, Bailey, Cooky, … Dolly! That’s it! I knew I had it in my memory somewhere. It just took a while to find it.

Dolly Parton from Thomas Hawk via Flickr

I have always had a problem remembering names, but it has become worse as I have gotten older. When I was a teacher I would sometimes draw up a seating plan for each of my classes with the students’ names in the squares. That helped, but it was a little clunky to use and occasionally the students would decide to sit in different places. Often, I would start the course by telling the students that if I failed to remember any of their names, it wasn’t personal. I just had a bad memory. I know that it matters to people that you know their name, but try as I might, I have often failed to meet that expectation.

One name I repeatedly have a problem with is Tom Cruise. I don’t know why, but his name escapes me. A couple of times now I have been telling a story about him or a movie he is in only to hit a blank wall when I was about to say his name. Then, I have looked at my eldest son and said “Top Gun” and he has replied, “Tom Cruise.” My son is very familiar with my problem. It’s odd, though, that I can remember the name of one of Tom Cruise’s movies, but not his name.

I have tried all the customary methods for recalling names; repeating them back in conversation two or three times, writing them down, attaching them to photos, and so on. I still try the repetition technique and it works for a while, but if there is a long interval between the first meeting and the second, the name is usually gone from my memory by then.

Until today I just thought of this as a personal failing made worse by aging, but then I came across a name for this particular malady; it is anomic aphasia. It’s an actual thing! According to Wikipedia, “Subjects often use circumlocutions (speaking in a roundabout way) to avoid a name they cannot recall or to express a certain word they cannot remember. Sometimes, the subject can recall the name when given clues.” That is definitely me. They could have added, “Sometimes the subject relies on family members to read their mind”.

Even though there seems to be no cure for this problem, I feel much better about it now that I know it isn’t just a personal shortcoming. When I forget someone’s name in future I will just explain that I suffer from anomic aphasia, … if I can remember its name.


  1. Ha! My spouse and I have the same problem so we know one of us will have the right starting letters and the other the right number of syllables. We will know (say, with actors) what movies but will go through the same charade coming up with the title. We usually arrive at the right names eventually but do this exercise before we check The Googles. The word ‘thing’ is probably the most used word we have, second by ‘that person.’

    In my teacher training, each of us had to come up with some kind of action plan for personal growth each term – anything from exercising to completing a project. It didn’t mater as long as we figured out a start to finish exercise with benchmarks. One semester I chose name retention because, like you, I’ve never been very good at it and I didn’t want students to ever feel that I I must care very little because I couldn’t even be bothered to remember their names. Also, as you mention, I had certain techniques that helped a little bit. So my challenge was two-fold: learn every student teacher’s name in a week’s time (there were about 120 of us). When I presented, I remembered everyone’s full name and thought I was done. But the instructor asked everyone to hold on and for me to stay at the front. The instruction was for each student to associate a word with their first name only and me to have 3 minutes with the collected list in the hallway and then come back in without any list and tell each student what their word was. By the time I had told the last person their word successfully, everyone thought I must be a savant or something. But it’s a technique I use when I meet people and associate something about that person, something visual or auditory or stylistic but with substance and meaning to me that then tells me what their name is! Classes of students I could do, which was handy when I was substituting, usually in about 10 minutes per 30 students in a class. It helped freak students out who didn’t know me at all but heard me correctly say their names shortly after starting the class. I would make a passing reference that perhaps their regular teacher had mentioned their name to me previously but whether in a good way or bad I mischievously kept to myself.

    Probably the best way to recall names is if it has been placed within a story or funny image or musical phrase or whatever and these are then kept in certain locations in my memory house so that I know where to go in this mental house to retrieve the story or image or sound, pull it out of storage and – Poof! – there’s the name. Writing the name down and adding doodles to its shape before putting the rendered version away in the memory house was another substitute teaching trick I would do during assignments so that I could use first names or last with proper titles – very effective when I could emphasize the Mister or Ms before the last name (or the entire full name just like a parent might do with a wayward child) – if a student required teacher intervention.

    Anyway, with public figures and actors I don’t usually go to this effort and so it’s fun to try to figure out a name as a social activity.

    • I used to rely on my husband for names. He had a fantastic memory. Actually, it’s one of his characteristics that I miss the most!

      Your challenge for yourself is most impressive. I have heard that associations with images or similar sounds can help but I have not heard about using something funny or musical before. Well done.

  2. This is just another example that how we think determines what we think. How we think about names determines our recall ability.

  3. I have the same problem. Names are bad because you can’t reason them through. They are pretty arbitrary. Sometimes I also have trouble with other words. I had a terrible time remembering the type of law my step-daughter practices. I know now (if given maybe 5 seconds) because I have really worked at it – intellectual property. But I used to struggle at length and come up with something like “the ownership of intelligence”. Once I struggled to remember the name of the movie Death Becomes Her- and came up with She Looks Better When She’s Dead! Semantic memory is not stored in verbal form.

    • I love your examples, Barb. It’s so frustrating, isn’t it. But, we keep on trying.

      “Semantic memory is not stored in verbal form”!
      Does that explain why I can visualize the shape of a word but not the word?

  4. Oh YEAH BABY!!! “Anomic aphasia“… I am totally using this brain dysfunction now! Thank you… umm… oh, what is it? The lady behind Snowbird of Paradise? Umm… 😉

    • What it is, is still a mystery. What it does, however, is universally understood. Many of us seem to have experienced its effects.

      I wonder if it is a chemical thing, or a brain neurology thing, or maybe a result of a historical bump on the head.

      • Having played soccer/football most of my life—as a goalkeeper—I have suffered from many concussions from collisions. I was convinced by family to go to a neurologist a couple of years ago to be examined for possible CTE or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Nothing concrete was established, however, I certainly have begun struggling with memory or very minor forms of dementia. It doesn’t help either that Alzheimer’s disease has effected several of my aunts and uncles, mainly on my maternal side. Mom and her sisters all suffer(ed) from both conditions. I wonder if anomic aphasia is part of the same categorizations of the brain? 🤔

        • I was in a car accident in 2007 in which my car rolled over a few times. The recovery time was lengthy because it involved fractured cranial vertebrae. I have often wondered how that has affected my brain function, but I can’t prove that my mental decline is related to it. I could just be in a normal decline.

          Like you, I suspect that I am on the fringes of dementia, and I’m just hoping that I can hold on to my sanity long enough to misbehave for another decade or two.

          • That’s a great attitude/perspective to take Anne. I applaud you for it. “…misbehave for another decade or two.” HAH! Love it! 😉

            I am very sorry about your accident in 2007. If I had known the accident might be a contributing factor I would not have joked in the first place—bad, poor taste. However, I still wish to apologize. Like a super happy Great Dane in a China closet and its whooshing massive tail, I just went carelessly down the wrong path there didn’t I? 😬🤦‍♂️

            I do hope your memory IS INDEED part of aging; I think that is what most of us hope for as we move through the latter stages of our lives, huh? ❤️

            • No apology needed. My injury is probably no more significant than yours or anyone else who has actually experienced life. Whether it is soccer, car rollovers, most sports, tripping on sidewalks, or bar fights, most of us have had at least one bonk on the head.

            • Hah! Very true Anne. I got a few from my two ex-wives as well that COULD be considered traumatic… at least in my echoing, stars circling cranium that is fast losing way too much grey hair now! 😉

  5. Semantic memory is not stored in verbal form. You remember the meaning but not the word . My Death Becomes Her example shows this. Also you know the person, everything about them, but not the name. Memory for names is apparently stored in a different part of the brain- related to articulation of the word.

    • Sorry for the length here but Barbara, you’ve mentioned a couple of times now that ‘semantic memory’ is not stored in ‘verbal’ form. I’m a bit confused about what you mean by this and why it matters enough for me to write so much. If you could clarify for me, that would be much appreciated.

      If by ‘verbal form’ you mean names and by ‘semantic memory’ you mean ‘meaning’, then it seems to me all words – even names – are representations of meaning even if some words do not map one to one with a particular and specific meaning. But the language you’re using here is confusing me: usually we talk about ‘sematic’ memory in relation to remembering meaning over a period of time versus ‘episodic’ memory related more to experiences (often mislabeled as more of a ‘short term’ kind of memory). On the one hand you make it sound as if we process meaning in a part of the brain over here and process names in a part of the brain over there, but on the other hand you make it sound as if memory retention of meaning is kept over here but ‘verbal’ memory retention of words are stored over there. I don’t think (but I certainly could be wrong here) that in either case your model describes what’s really going on when we search for and fail to retrieve a name; I think both process and retention are actually quite different than this model.

      So what, and who cares?

      Well, a recurring issue all of us face every day is that understanding a problem is the foundation upon which we try to build effective solutions… and that success through application is a pretty good indicator we’re doing pretty well mapping solutions to problems. All too often, however, most of us conveniently forget that failures where solutions that don’t fix the problems they were designed and implemented to address are pretty good indicators that we’re off base understanding the actual problem. That’s why your comment matters. I think it’s off base.

      Understanding why we have difficulty or challenges – especially over time – recalling something like names I think is key to implementing strategies through applications that address this common problem successfully. In other words, if we want to recall a name and are consistently having problems doing so, then it stands to reason we need better solutions! Success indicates we’re using better strategies. Failure indicates not understanding the original problem and so we need a better strategy. If it matters…

      Of course, we can also just shrug and continue encountering not just the same problem but quite often be negatively affected more and more over time by the same problem but to greater degrees (What medications am I on? Let’s see… umm… big pill in the morning and a blue one in the evening or is it the red one in morning and the big one later? And the blue one? Umm….) Memory is a HUGE concern as we age and so this is why I’m commenting here! I think it’s a really important issue and one that I think is not well understood at all. But it is a rich source of humour!

      I also tend to think this way because it has been a professional concern that has allowed me to effectively teach people young and old, especially those who have brain impairments. If I don’t understand what a learning impairment means in how the brain processes information (and we all have them, especially when it comes to math), then I have little chance of effectively teaching a strategy to overcome or work around it. And this is certainly true of teaching literacy to older adults. So I know I pay far too much attention than most people attending brain research because this is central to my ability to teach effectively. Other people? Not so much. And that’s fine. So please don’t take this comment personally or as any kind of personal criticism. I comment this way because I care deeply about the topic.

      So memory retrieval – including retrieving names – is central to how we bring our attention to bear not just on learning but its application in a variety of ways. (Again, how we think determines what we think; the methods produce predictable results. Change the method, change the result.) I think far too many of us fall into the trap of excusing loss of expertise and cognitive function like memory retrieval as a natural part of aging, which I think is a terrible and detrimental bias; I suspect what’s really going on is that we tend to lose what don’t use and do not appreciate as much as we should that lack of memory in some cases is because of heightened expertise and efficiency in other cases. Much of this, surprising to some I suspect, relates to the longitudinal effects childhood reading has on the brain and I shudder to think of the effects 50 years down the road as today’s cohort reaches the later decades of their lives without developing reading and retention abilities from a young age that support sematic memory. But, hey, that’s a different topic.

      So when you say “semantic memory is not stored in verbal form”, I compare and contrast that to a conclusion I think better reflects how the brain works: “Indeed, like episodic memory, semantic memory is a highly flexible, (re)constructive, relational and multimodal knowledge system. Furthermore, like episodic memory, semantic memory also depends critically on the hippocampus. Recent work also highlights the pivotal role semantic memory plays across many, if not all, forms of episodic memory.” (Source)

      This understanding matters because I rely on it to find ways to enhance memory retrieval for all kinds of students for whom I am probably the last line of formal education, as well as for a personal reason: I had a brother with significant brain trauma especially to one hemisphere’s hippocampus and how that played out throughout his life for all kinds of memory issues and the resulting challenges this presented not just to him but to those of us in the family affected by it. He’s now a guru with a substantial following, but’s that, too, is another story and not one that breeds trust in me about the spiritual!

  6. Hi Tildeb:
    I wrote you a long answer, but there was an error and somehow it didn’t go through. I’ll try again.

  7. Ok this time it should go through. I am a retired professor of cognitive psychology. Cognitive psychology is a relatively new science, and it took quite a while before we learned how to do research on such things as memory, but now it is beginning to come together. I’ve been away from it for 12 years now, but I’m still pretty sure semantic memory is not stored in verbal form. By semantic memory I mean memory of the meaning of things. When you want to communicate something it seem instantaneous, but now we know that first you know what you want to say and then you put it into words. In humans, concepts that we have are associated in the brain with words, how they sound and how they are articulated. We have all had the experience of knowing what we want to say sometimes, but having trouble putting it into words. We may have experienced the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon where it feels like a name or a word is right on the tip of your tongue but you can’t remember it.
    Animals such as elephants or dogs do not have language, but they have knowledge. It is reasonable to assume they have semantic memory. (And episodic too , knowledge of events, but I’m not talking about that.) Sometimes as a result of injury or stroke in certain areas of the brain, a person may lose the ability to speak, but that person still has knowledge, but may not be able to remember the words or how to articulate them. There have actually been cases where a bilingual person, through brain injury, has lost one of his languages. He has semantic memory, knows what he wants to say, but can express it in only one of his languages, maybe in French but not in English. This sort of evidence leads psychologist to believe semantic memory is in a different part of the brain from the knowledge of words.
    Memory loss in normal aging is something we are still studying, but definitely any ability can be lost to some extent if it is not used. There are probably things we can do to improve memory at any age. Yes, I agree that early childhood experience is very important in intellectual development.
    Tildeb, it would be fun to get together and have a good talk.

    • Thank you for this, Barbara. Yes, conversation would be fascinating.

      I just finished reading Levitin’s Successful Aging and highly recommend it. If I could start over, I would go into neuroscience; it’s so fascinating and we’re just at the front end of this field. The latest papers I’ve read involves how it seems we don’t ‘store’ memories like we might with physical or computer files but seem to rebuild them each time we draw upon it; the data that incorporates what we previously thought was the case seems quite strong to indicate this model because previous flaws are included and ‘become’ the new memory. Obviously, this understanding has a large effect on what we presume and assume is true recall, our personal experiences, and so we can quite easily end up fooling ourselves that what we think is true or believe to be the case but can easily rely on an evolved memory especially after more and more time has passed. Each time we draw it up, the assembled memory itself seems to be subject to various degrees of ‘mutations’ (for whatever reasons) that can sometimes result in memories that have little if any relevance to reality! Of course, lawyers, politicians, magicians, and con men rely on just this! Anyway, fascinating stuff and something that makes me sit up and pay attention.

      I think using all parts of the brain across hemispheres (like sound, colours, smells, humour, music, rhymes, and so on is the way to solidify – to make something like names and numbers truly meaningful – memory.

      Thanks for your response.

      • I had heard of this new research. Really interesting – and disconcerting! We still have to rely on eyewitness testimony in court- sometimes that’s all there is. I keep a journal. Quite often what I remember is not what I originally wrote down. Good thing we humans developed writing! Will look up Leviton’s book.

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