Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."

Total Pageviews

Sunday, September 29, 2019


Earlier today, while my wife and I were out shopping, we tried without success to recall the name of a very familiar restaurant in the nearby town of Carrboro.  We were having what folks in our retirement community call a “senior moment,” a familiar occurrence, alas.  Not of itself a notable event.  But as we drove on, I reflected that I could easily and precisely recall where the restaurant is, how to drive to it, what it looks like, what is on the menu, several times when we have been there – virtually everything about it but its name.

This is characteristic of such senior moments.  Several years ago I was unable for some time to recall the name of a famous operatic soprano, Kathleen Battle. I would go and get the CD I have of her singing arias with Winton Marsalis accompanying her, I would say to myself “Kathleen Battle, Kathleen Battle, KB, KB” and yet ten minutes later I could not recall her name, even though I could hear her in my head and even sing along with some of the arias.

So today I started to wonder, where in the brain are stored all the details I can recall of the restaurant, and where is stored its name?  Has anyone done research on this phenomenon? 

Is there someone out there reading this who knows?


s. wallerstein said...

The same thing happens to me.

I have no idea of the scientific explanation, but what's interesting is that it's not random. Just as you cannot remember Kathleen Battle although you try to, there are certain names which I can't remember again and again, even though I write them down or repeat them in an effort to remember them.

I suppose that some kind of Freudian explanation might be possible: that those names have certain associations which one tries to repress, but it does occur in cases, for example, a neighbor in my apartment building, where it's hard to imagine what the Freudian association might be.

It does seem to occur more when I'm with others and trying to carry on a normal conversation than when I'm alone, which gives me the idea that the tension or stress of trying to prove to others that I'm still as sharp as ever betrays me and makes me forget names just when I most want to show to the world that my memory still works as well as it ever did.

Bob Felton said...

I can't explain it either, but I've noticed in my own case that it is proper nouns that I am most often unable to recall.

Dean said...

Same here, and I have no explanation. Coincidentally, the episode of Philosophy Talk that just ended here was all about explanation. My anecdote is also related to music. By the mid-'80s I had begun to amass a large-ish record collection. I recall one day reading the liner notes and recording details on one album cover. It might have been a Savoy Brown record. It occurred to me then that the album had been recorded at the same studio and engineered by the same engineer as a nearly contemporary album by (if I now remember correctly) Caravan. I was dumbfounded with my own capacity to retain trivia, and so I decided at that point to shed records from the collection, because I did not want to devote grey matter to a compendium of pointless facts. I have since changed course again and by now have collected more records than I can possibly listen to. At least I no longer dwell on the liner notes.

Michael said...

I don't know the answer to your questions. But I took a peek at the "Memory" article on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and holy cow. This would seem to be a philosophical goldmine, the likes of which I haven't encountered in a very long time - thank you for pointing me in this direction! As is my usual habit, I didn't read much of the article, but I consulted the bibliography for titles that sounded interesting enough to look up and possibly add to my reading list. I would recommend doing the same. (Also of interest to the readers of this blog: The SEP quite recently published an article called "Socialism.")

In addition to those already mentioned by Prof. Wolff and Wallerstein, which largely pertain to the psychology of memory, there are some very interesting and (on my part as a reader) underexplored issues which pertain more to the philosophy of memory: What is the nature of memory? (Is it, e.g., more like sense-perception or more like imagination?) To what extent should we be skeptical of memory as a source of knowledge? What role does memory play in our being persons (metaphysically), and in our being the individual humans we are? What role does memory play in our moral experiences, e.g. in acts of forgiveness, and in our evaluation and understanding of ourselves and our lives? In what ways might our relationship with the past (or the future, for that matter) be irrational or otherwise perverse, and to what extent is it possible or desirable for us to correct it?

Dean said...

Here's the abstract of a relevant paper, Metoki et al., Never Forget a Name: White Matter Connectivity Predicts Person Memory, in Brain Structure and Function (Springer 2017):

"Through learning and practice, we can acquire numerous skills, ranging from the simple (whistling) to the complex (memorizing operettas in a foreign language). It has been proposed that complex learning requires a network of brain regions that interact with one another via white matter pathways. One candidate white matter pathway, the uncinate fasciculus (UF), has exhibited mixed results for this hypothesis: some studies have shown UF involvement across a range of memory tasks, while other studies report null results. Here, we tested the hypothesis that the UF supports associative memory processes and that this tract can be parcellated into sub-tracts that support specific types of memory. Healthy young adults performed behavioral tasks (two face–name learning tasks, one word pair memory task) and underwent a diffusion-weighted imaging scan. Our results revealed that variation in UF microstructure was significantly associated with individual differences in performance on both face–name tasks, as well as the word association memory task. A UF sub-tract, functionally defined by its connectivity between face-selective regions in the anterior temporal lobe and orbitofrontal cortex, selectively predicted face–name learning. In contrast, connectivity between the fusiform face patch and both anterior face patches had no predictive validity. These findings suggest that there is a robust and replicable relationship between the UF and associative learning and memory. Moreover, this large white matter pathway can be subdivided to reveal discrete functional profiles."

Dean said...

Of related interest, Huijbers et al., Age-Related Increases in Tip-of-the-tongue are Distinct from Decreases in Remembering Names: A Functional MRI Study, Cerebral Cortex, v. 27, no. 9, pp. 4339-4349 (Sept. 2017)

"Tip-of-the-tongue (TOT) experiences increase with age and frequently heighten concerns about memory decline. We studied 73 clinically normal older adults participating in the Harvard Aging Brain Study. They completed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) task that required remembering names associated with pictures of famous faces. Older age was associated with more self-reported TOT experiences and a decrease in the percentage of remembered names. However, the percentage of TOT experiences and the percentage of remembered names were not directly correlated. We mapped fMRI activity for recollection of famous names and TOT and examined activity in the hippocampal formation, retrosplenial cortex, and lateral prefrontal cortex. The hippocampal formation was similarly activated in recollection and TOT experiences. In contrast, the retrosplenial cortex was most active for recollection and lateral prefrontal cortex was most active for TOT experiences. Together, the results confirm that age-related increases in TOT experiences are not only solely the consequence of age-related decline in recollection, but also likely reflect functional alterations in the brain networks that support retrieval monitoring and cognitive control. These findings provide behavioral and neuroimaging evidence that age-related TOT experiences and memory failure are partially independent processes."

Jerry Fresia said...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jerry, that is truly extraordinary.

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

Dr. Wolff,
I think you should look on the bright side. By that I mean if you remember how to get to the restaurant you are better off than remembering the name and not remembering how to get there. Likewise with our opera star, you remember more than enough information to look up her name, or, for that matter, stroll over to the CD rack and find the one with Winton Marsalis and Ms. Battle.

I have read that memory tends to function in chunks. While we can remember discrete bits of info, we tend to remember clusters of related things. This is especially true of musicians. I would bet that you remember more than you indicated in your post about Ms Battle's performances. For example, the keys of particular pieces, the melodies (which you can not only hear in your head, but can reproduce vocally or on the viola), the orchestra and conductor, etc. Not remembering Kathleen Battle's name seems not really to be a problem.

If it is, I have a big problem. Amy's and my conversations are loaded with exchanges like the following: Me:"you know, whatshisname. The guy who..." Amy: "Yeah, I know who you mean but I can't think of it right now." I know I was going to finish this with an important point. Never mind!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, you are right. That sounds just like the conversations I have with my wife. I was not so much worried as interested as to why names disappear when so much else remains. Memory is odd. I cannot memorize ten lines of poetry, but I can hear, or whistle, or play long stretches of complex music. The very knowledgeable comments spoke to memory generally but not to the striking contrast between names and other items of associated memory.

I wonder what Noam would say. It is a pity that I have not been in touch with him in half a century. [I wonder whether he would remember my name. :) ]

s. wallerstein said...

The ageing process seems to have spared Chomsky's memory. He's a bit hard of hearing and I notice that he needs help to climb the stairs to the stage he lectures from, but I've never witnessed memory problems in Chomsky even though he's ninety. said...

Memories are modularly compartmentalzed, according to type, ease of access to them depending on any number of variables. Andrew Ellis and Andrew Young have still the definitive account in their, "Human Cognitive Neuropsychology". Oxford University Press, as I recall. Get the augmented edition, though still very pricey even on Amazon

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

I can't tell you how many times I have have forgotten the name of a song (and/or) who wrote it while I can remember the chord pattern, the key it was in originally, the melody line, etc. It is always the name, and very often the lyrics, not the music, which trips me up. Perhaps the situation we find ourselves in is due to early, serious, musical training. Surprisingly, musical training has visible effects on the structure of the brain. Oliver Sachs talks about this in his book on music, what's the name? Just kidding, Musicophilia.

Sorry I don't have any idea why it's names or the region(s) in the brain involved.

Jim Westrich said...

I think you have access to university journals and if you do you likely would be interested in this article (music is definitely handled differently in the brain and in memory--the article is mostly about the therapeutic uses of music for those with Alzheimer's):

If you cannot get access (I do not have access right now but I can get it) just let me know and I can send you the PDF.

BTW, I used to volunteer for a hospice and made CDs for dying people. I loved doing it and got so many positive responses. I had a pretty good knowledge of obscure old swing songs and loved making CDs for patients/families that asked for swing music.