Memory holes

Does your memory let you down? Mine does sometimes and very irritating that can be, too. One of its annoying little tricks is what the French call “trou de mémoire” (literally “memory hole”). I think everyone experiences this from time to time. Let’s say you are chatting away, discussing some interesting topic or recounting an anecdote and you reach for a familiar word, the exact word you must use in this context and… nothing. The word simply isn’t there. Your listeners are left in suspense and you stammer and try to recall the missing word.

Quite often, the word reappears after a few seconds but it may disappear for hours or even days at a time. I have sometimes been reduced to looking in a thesaurus or searching on the Web for articles on topics where the word might occur, in the hope of being reminded of it. On one occasion, I had a Tom Jones song going around in my head. The line “Why, why, why, Delilah?” kept repeating itself except that the name – Delilah – was missing. How daft was that? I simply could not recall that name. I hunted for it for about two days and then it suddenly popped into my mind unbidden.

These are what you might call “sporadic truants”: they are found to be missing on a particular occasion but then they return and never do it again. In contrast, there are what could similarly be termed “habitual truants”. These are words which for some reason almost always elude me. For example, I had an online friend who suffered from epilepsy. I would find myself saying something like “I have this friend who suffers from… er… from… er…” The word “epilepsy” would hide and refuse to come out. Even if I remembered the word or was told it by someone, it would go missing again, even minutes after I had pronounced it!

The other annoying memory fault is when a familiar word somehow becomes blocked by another. It is as though someone has obstructed the path and you can’t get through. Every time you reach for the word you want, the interloper appears instead.

I have a relative who lives in the city of Colmar in Eastern France. Every time I tried to recall the name of this town, however, the name “Obernai” would pop up instead. Obernai is a very pretty little town but it is a long way from Colmar and has no obvious connection with it. Why then, when I want to recall “Colmar”, does “Obernai” come up instead? There is no obvious reason. More important: what can one do about it?

The best way that I have found of overcoming these “trous de mémoire” and blocked words is to think up mnemonics. For example, I buy an antiseptic called Savlon but for some reason its name often goes AWOL, especially when I am in the shop looking for it. So I hit on the idea of repeating to myself the mnemonic “Save our Savlon”. Ridiculous as it may seem, I don’t remember the word “Savlon” but I do remember the nonsensical “Save our Savlon”. In the same way, I can recall the name of the city of Colmar by associating it with “Coleman’s Mustard”.

Why does this work? Why, if I can’t remember a word, can I remember a phrase that has no obvious relationship to the word? Rightly or wrongly, I explain it in this way: when you recover a word from your memory, there will be a “path” to it, on an analogy with the cataloguing system in a library, and sometimes, the “path” becomes blocked for some reason. Thinking up a mnemonic creates a new path to the word, one that by-passes the obstruction. That’s my theory, for what it’s worth. The interesting thing is after you have used the mnemonic for a while, you find you no longer need it. You remember the word straightaway. This supports the “new path” theory, I think.

Memory is a wonderful faculty, perhaps the most important that we possess. Without it we would be amnesiacs fumbling our way through an endlessly alien world. Memory allows us to learn to deal with the world and, after all, what is this mysterious “I” that I believe myself to be if not the accumulated memories of all that “I” have seen, done, learned and experienced? I am my memory and I should cherish and cultivate it.

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About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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2 Responses to Memory holes

  1. athinkingman says:

    I was selfishly encouraged by reading this as you described a phenomenon that has been growing increasingly frequent in my experience in recent years – almost to the extent that I have seriously started to worry about it. One of my particular problems is names. Although I have a long history of getting muddled over names, it has become much worse recently.

    I can remember years ago teaching a class all year and persistently having a blockage about two male students. They were not similar to look at, nor were they similar in ability, and I could remember their individual names, but all year I frequently blanked out everytime I looked at one and said to myself: “I know he is either X or Y, but which one is it?”

    Now, I continue to meet a lot of people each week, and because of my professional work tend to know a lot of details about them. I can often remember about their pets, their complicated families, their jobs, but before they walk through the office door, I often have to check their names and literally say it out loud to myself several times in the seconds before they arrive. Using your analogy of the library, it feels like the pathways are in place, the Dewey System is working, but the book spines have dropped off!

  2. SilverTiger says:

    The explanation I have seen is that as we get older, we accumulate more and more information and it therefore becomes harder to find specific items unless they are carefully catalogued.

    I have found that using mnemonics or making a special point of remembering something helps. This works, of course, once you are aware of having a problem remembering a particular item. It doesn’t help when the “hole” first appears! You may then meet someone in the street and fail to recall his name or be recounting an anecdote and not manage to recover the word that is the point of the whole story!

    I read that a famous person (whose name typically escapes me) imagined his memory as a vast filing system with labelled drawers. Whenever he learnt a new fact or name, he carefully “filed” it in the appropriate drawer and then, when he wanted it, “went” to that drawer to recover it.

    I imagine that creating and maintaining such a filing system would be a problem on its own account, however effective it might be in helping to recover information.

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