The Midlife Memory Meltdown
One type of forgetfulness is so prevalent, not to mention demoralizing, that just about everyone over 40 complains about it. I refer to the very public cognitive failure known as blocking, or blanking, when names refuse to come to mind and words dart in and out of consciousness, hiding in dark closets just when you need them.
In his landmark book, The Seven Sins of Memory, the eminent Harvard memory expert Daniel Schacter, PhD, notes that the concept of blocking exists in at least 45 languages. The Cheyenne used an expression, Navonotootse`a, which translates “I have lost it on my tongue.” In Korean it is Hyeu kkedu-te mam-dol-da, which in English means “sparkling at the end of my tongue.”
In midlife, resolving the “tip of the tongue” dilemma grows increasingly challenging. In the split second between your query—”What do you call that sleek, dark purple vegetable?”—and the response—”eggplant”—your aging brain delivers quantities of unsolicited information. Often, notes Schacter, “People can produce virtually everything they know about a person...nearly everything they know about a word except its label.” The brain volunteers words that begin with the same letter, items that are the same color or shape, and, my favorite, words with the same number of syllables—all of which gum up the works.
Unfortunately, blocking is most common in social situations, when anxiety and distraction combine to kidnap a chunk of your already challenged working memory. Roman aristocrats avoided the problem by always traveling with a nomenclator, an alert slave whose duty it was to supply his master with the names of acquaintances as they were encountered. In the film The Devil Wears Prada, magazine editor Miranda Priestly relies on her young assistant, Andy Sachs, to produce the names of party guests. Absent such a companion, Barbara Wallraff, senior editor and columnist for The Atlantic, sought suggestions from her readers on how to describe what transpires when you're introducing two people but have blocked their names. One reader suggested whomnesia. Another proposed mumbleduction.
With planning, many instances of Quick-Who-Is-She Dysfunction can be eradicated. Before you go to see the eighth-grade play, where you will sit among people you've known since your kids were in kindergarten, take 15 minutes to look over the school directory. You may avoid the embarrassment suffered by my friend Victor, an economist, when he introduced himself to a woman at Back to School Night who reminded him that the year before, at the same event, they'd spent a pleasant hour chatting about their shared alma mater.
Writing down a few key phrases on an index card before putting yourself in a cognitively challenging situation can ward off word loss. Before heading to your book group, take a moment to review the names of the characters and the plot of the fat novel you finished two weeks ago and barely remember. The other members will thank you. If words go missing anyway, grab for a synonym. Staying on the trail like a bloodhound only exacerbates the problem.