Mental Blocks

There is perhaps no scientific mystery more profound than the operation of the vast neural network we call the human brain. I was reminded of this yet again this morning by my mental processes during my walk, which ran counter to the subtitle of this blog: my thoughts, far from being idle, were racing in circles like a hamster on a wheel. And what was I so furiously (and unproductively) thinking about? I was trying to remember something I know I know.

Failure to summon up elusive words and (especially) names is a phenomenon I would imagine is not unfamiliar to most of my readers. It can occur at any age but, as I need hardly point out, becomes more common as we grow older. What is such a mystery is why we can always remember so many things we don’t really need to know (what my father used to call “miscellaneous useless information”—what is now called “trivia”) and invariably forget certain things we do need (or want) to know. And why mnemonics seem to be futile in some really hard cases, since we can’t remember the mnemonics, either.

A couple of years ago I created a Word file named “Mental Blocks” and titled “Things I Keep Forgetting.” In it I record the names of people and things that stymie me. Now when my mind becomes fixated on one of my chronic unmemorables, I have a reference. In other cases, I can jog my memory by searching my hard drive or the Internet for the needed information. Unfortunately, when I am walking, the only hard drive I have access to is my own brain, which now has many bad sectors and broken links. So when something reminds me of one of those “things I keep forgetting,” I have no recourse until I get home.

If I can distract myself with other sights and thoughts and feelings, occasionally I can put the gears in neutral long enough for the sought-after name to float to the top of my head. But usually my mind just keeps spinning its wheels until I get home.

Today’s unmemorable was “Land Rover.” I don’t know why I even need to remember this, but from time to time I’ll realize that I can’t, and it will drive me crazy. The last time I experienced this, I actually remembered it before I got home (victory!), but today I had to admit defeat and go to a Web page where I knew I had referenced it. I’ve now added it to the Mental Blocks file for easier reference.

Corollary to this experience is the subject of word and thought association. If I am trying to remember the name of, say, a particular actress or a person in our community, I have a huge vague cloud of mental associations with that person, some of them difficult to put into words and many of them peculiar to my personal experience. She played this part in that movie (which I can clearly visualize, though I can’t remember the name of the role or the film), and she’s married to the actor who was in such-and-such television drama. Or she has two sons (whose names I don’t remember) who played in the high school marching band with my daughter, and her husband was a well-known psychiatrist with an unusual name that contributes to my confusion of this person with someone else, and her aunt [or perhaps it was her husband’s aunt?] was my aunt’s longtime friend and neighbor, etc. Unfortunately, given the uniqueness of individual points of view, there is rarely any description I can come up with from which anyone else can recognize the person I’m describing. For actors, thank goodness for IMDb; for everything else, I’m pretty much on my own—which is why the latter-described person is the first entry in my Mental Blocks file!

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