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Friday, March 5, 2021


Those of you who are at or near my age are undoubtedly familiar with the expression “senior moment.” It is a polite way of saying that one is going gaga. I have for a long time now had senior moments and they always take exactly the same form. I simply cannot call to mind a name. For example, for the longest time some years ago I could not remember the name of the great classical soprano Kathleen Battle. I could remember what she looked like, I could remember how she sounded, I could remember that she had recorded a glorious CD of Baroque arias for soprano and trumpet with Wynton Marsalis. I could even remember that she had been bounced from the Met because she was apparently impossible to work with. I simply could not remember her name. I would run to the shelf where I had the CD and look at it to remind myself. After a while I tried to recall KB but then I could not even recall that.


Just yesterday, I could not recall Martha Nussbaum’s name although I could recall what she looked like and a fair amount about her career and even a funny story involving her when she was an assistant professor in the Harvard philosophy department but I could not recall her name. Among the other people whose names I have blanked on are David Souter, Thomas Piketty (even though I knew I had written a 9000 word review of his first big book) and my old student Tom Cathcart (although I could remember his first name.)


The fact that I have senior moments does not surprise me. This is quite common among us 87-year-olds. But it mystifies me that it always takes precisely this form. Very likely there is some precise neurological explanation for this but I have not a clue what it is. Anybody know?


David Palmeter said...

"As I age and blank on names,
As my uncertainty on stairs
Is more and more the lightheadedness

Of a cabin boy's first time in the rigging,
As the memorable bottoms out
Into the irretrievable

It's not that I can't imagine still
That slight untoward rupture and world-tilt
As a wind freshened and the anchor weighed."

--Seamus Heaney

s. wallerstein said...

this article may interest you.

Samuel Chase said...

I and several of my contemporaries have the same problem. I repeatedly have the problem of being unable to remember the name Cormac McCarthy; the name of Stevie Nicks’ band (Fleetwood Mac); the name of the composer of Sing, Sing, Sing (Louie Prima). Just today I could not remember the word “indemnify.” I try to use a mnemonic device to remember them (“fast” for Fleetwood), but then I forget the mnemonic device. I am very stubborn and sometimes will not continue my task at hand until I remember the name. I will lie in bed going through the alphabet until something clicks. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Often I fall asleep, and then it pops into my head when I wake up. It is particularly aggravating when I can’t even remember what I was just trying to remember.

This has been aggravated by episodes which suggest that I need to be institutionalized (a proposal that many of my fellow commenters would agree is a good recommendation). I recently attended a meeting during which I had been playing with my car key. I then abstractly put my car key into one of my many coat pockets, and when it cam time to leave, I could not find it. So I went into my wallet where I keep a spare key for such moments. I went to my car, but the car would not start. I assumed I needed a jump. I went back into the office and asked if anyone had jumper cables. One of the attendees was gracious enough to offer to jump my car, without success. So then I called AAA to jump my car or install a new battery. They were unable to jump the car, so they installed a new battery, which took about 45 minutes. Still, the engine would not turn over. Concluding that there was a more serious mechanical problem involved, I called a tow truck to tow my car the 40 miles to my mechanic, while the same gracious friend drove me home. The next morning, I received a phone call from the mechanic asking me if I had another key, since the car was not recognizing the key that was in the ignition. I asked how can they determine this, and they said they have a computer that does this. I said, yes, I have an additional key – the key I had misplaced in my coat pocket, which I had since found. They sent someone to my home to pick up the regular key – an lo and behold, the car started! Apparently the spare I had purchased did not contain whatever recognition device is supposed to be in the key for the ignition to recognize it. An evening wasted my own, and others’ time, trying to turn a car on with the wrong key.

In a previous comment, I proposed a program titled Jeopardy For Seniors, in which the contestants are allotted 1 hour to answer each question, and after three hours, we all have a one hour nap.

Eric said...

I have a book "Memory in the Real World" (2008) that has a chapter by J. Richard Hanley and Gillian Cohen that reviews the research in that area of neuropsychology. In short, the answer is nobody knows.

For someone in their late 80s with as remarkable a memory as RPW has, as we can see from his recent Youtube recordings, I would not worry about Alzheimer's. And more generally, aside from any neurological diseases that could contribute to proper-name recollection, older folks often have a much larger number of data points to have to process when trying to locate a name than younger folks, and that can lead to slower (and perhaps less successful) retrieval. Or at least that is one hypothesis I have seen floated.

Harvard psychologist Daniel L. Schacter discusses the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon in a chapter on "The Sin of Blocking" in his book for the lay audience on "The Seven Sins of Memory" (2001). It might be worth taking a look at. I don't think there have been any big breakthroughs in this area in the past 20 years.

Charles Pigden said...

When I was in my twenties I repeatedly blanked on the name of Bill Wyman the Rolling Stone. I eventually devised a mnemonic by linking him in my mind with two characters in Quine's 'On What There Is': Wyman and McX.

Just today I blanked the name of James II's mistress Catherine Sedley, Countess of Dorchester. I had to look her up.

It is setting worse with age (I am 64) and it is REALLY annoying.

Charles Pigden said...

That should be 'getting worse with age'

J. Bogart said...

I do know exactly the explanation but I just can't recall it.

jeffrey g kessen said...

Memory is modular, to a vastly greater degree than even Jerry Fodor might have hypothesized. I still say, and I'm sticking with it, that the best book on the modularity of mind/memory is, "Human Cognitive Neuropsychology", by Ellis and Young. Last updated in 1997. Yeah, that dates me, but the data and theory in that book have since only marginally been surpassed.

Samuel Chase said...


Good for you. You stick to your guns, regardless what others may say about "Human Cognitive Neuropsychology", by Ellis and Young.

jeffrey g kessen said...

It's a great book, Sam. Read it. It's even possible you might learn something about yourself.

Samuel Chase said...

Perhaps I will, Jeff. It’s available on Amazon in paperback for $59.95. And I may indeed learn something about myself. And perhaps about you as well.

jeffrey g kessen said...

People always confuse "may" and "might". I hate that. Man, 60 bucks for a paperback edition of the Ellis and Young book---without even a chapter on the muddling of that distinction.

Samuel Chase said...

“May” indicates a higher probability than “might.”

“I may go to the store,” indicates that I probably will go to the store..

“I might go to the store,” indicates I probably wont’t go to the store.

Your assertion that I “might learn something” from the book whose merits you were extolling suggested that I was less than likely to learn something, which was ambiguous – am I less likely to learn something because I am not open to learning anything, or am too obtuse to learn anything? Or, alternatively, the book would have nothing to offer that I don’t already know. I decided to give you credit, and simultaneously dispel the suggestion that I am unable to learn anything, by opting for “I may learn something,” i.e., am more likely to learn something about myself. And perhaps about you as well, the use of “perhaps” being equipoised between more likely and less likely.

Michael said...

"May" versus "might" comes up occasionally for me, but doesn't seem much worth fussing about, IMO. (I'd say it's even less significant than "lay" versus "lie.") But it does tend to put me in mind, in a very amateurish way, of some philosophical ideas having to do with modality.

I saw something in Mackie's Miracle of Theism (probably in the critique of Plantinga's ontological argument) about the "collapse of iterated modalities." IIRC: "possibly-possibly X" reduces to "possibly X"; "necessarily-necessarily X" reduces to "necessarily X"; "necessarily-possibly X" reduces to "possibly-X"; "possibly-necessarily X" reduces to "necessarily X." I think that's it.

This would explain, incidentally, why it's redundant to say something like, "I might possibly do X." (Arguably it could be corrected to "I'll possibly do X" or "I might do X.")

(But to make matters more complicated, I was taught that there are different philosophical senses of "possibility": epistemic, logical, physical, metaphysical. So, e.g., "I might possibly do X" could be interpreted non-redundantly as "For all I know, the proposition 'I will do X' is not self-contradictory.")

jeffrey g kessen said...

"May" grants permission. "Might" indicates possibility. Anyway, dig your use of the word, "equipoised".

Samuel Chase said...


Love it (actually, neither possibly nor necessarily)!


You are mixing contests. In the “may” vs. “can” context, “may” means asking permission, “can” describes one’s ability.

In the “may” vs. “might” context, they describes different degrees of probability.

jeffrey g kessen said...

Points of punctilio. Rather more a question of usage than meaning, as John Austin liked to put it. Context is almost always a confounding variable.There is almost as much indeterminacy in communicative intent as there is in attempted grasp of communicative intent. One means one thing, the other doesn't. There's politics and philosophy for you.

Samuel Chase said...

Oy yo yoy. As my mother would say, “Hak mir nisht keyn tshaynik!”

jeffrey g kessen said...

Given the context, I translate the Yiddish as follows: "You're some kind of god=damn genius and I bow before you". Might be a little off, but the communicative intent is surely clear.

Samuel Chase said...

Ha, ha. Good try, Jeff, but your Yiddish is a bit off.

It means, “Stop bothering me like a loud tea kettle.” I heard that a lot growing up.

Warren Goldfarb said...

@Samuel Chase
It's not the tea kettle that's loud, it's the banging (hakn) on it; the annoying person's behavior is being likened to that banging.

Samuel Chase said...

Warren Goldfarb,

Thank you for the clarification.

When I was a kid and really did not know Yiddish, but knew I was being rebuked for something, I thought it had to do with China. “What am I doing that has anything to do with China?” I thought.

Samuel Chase said...

Explanation: "tshaynik" pronounced "chinik" with a long "i".

Maggie Hughes said...

Of course I have senior moments as well, being 76 now. But the phenomenon that drives me round the bend is that I have lost common words that I have used all my life but find an obscure word that I never use comes trippingly off my tongue. How often does a non-academic have the need for the word "explicate" but I used it recently, and correctly in context. Never did before that. And while I lost the word indigenous, which I understand now is the proper term for those we erroneously called Indians, I came up with endogenous. , I word I didn't know exactly how to spell and couldn't define but apparently read somewhere during my lifetime. This has happened over and over as I age. I remember the first word I lost know, that place we keep the cars in. Forgetting the word "garage" was a sobering event...and that was probably a decade ago....but it keeps getting worse. I'd love to understand how that works in my brain. i should have become a neurologist. But I wanted to be a ironic.

s. wallerstein said...

What's reassuring is that we don't seem to lose passive vocabulary, that is, words we understand when we read or hear them.

My native language is English, but I've lived most of my life outside the U.S., in Chile and I've always feared that as I got older, I'd lose my Spanish, which I learned as an adult and which is the language I live my daily life in. However, first of all, I seem to lose English words. I need to increasingly google words in English (words I once knew) to check their spelling and even their meaning. I don't do that with Spanish, maybe because my working vocabulary in Spanish has always been more limited.

I learned to read and understand some French, as a young adult, and it surprises me that although I rarely read books in French, when I pick one up with time to time, my reading comprehension in French is still good. I've forgotten very little, if any, of it.

As I get older (I'm 74), I fear not being able to understand others much more than I fear
expressing myself with difficulty from time to time. If I can't understand others, I'll get completely cut off from the world, while since I don't have a message for humanity and since in addition, I'm very introverted, so not being able to express myself as well as I used to doesn't matter that much to me.

Samuel Chase said...

“Happiness is good health and a bad memory.” Ingrid Bergman

I see that there are a lot of candidates for my Jeopardy for Seniors proposal commenting here.

Constanza said...

Surprising but familiar that you lose English words but not Spanish. I studied French 3 years in college with very little chance to practice it. I had 6 years of Spanish but with a bit more opportunity to speak it with native speakers. However, my great love is Italian (must have been Italian in a past life) and studied/practiced that language for at least a decade. But now, if I try to remember a word in italian, the first word that I remember is French, then Spanish and, if I'm lucky, I'll at last call up the Italian word (or look for it in the dictionary.). How does that make sense? The human brain is a fascinating enigma.

Constanza said...

By the way, Maggie Hughes is the name I wish I were born with, Constanza is one I used the first time I visited Philospher's Stone. Guess I'm stuck with it.

Andrew Lionel Blais said...

Interesting that Cephalus doesn't discuss the acuity of his memory, given that knowledge of the Forms is explained in terms of recollection.

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