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Why we Forget Names by Xenos Clark

In the last years of his life the venerated Emerson lost his memory of names. In instance of this many will remember the story told about him when returning from the funeral of his friend Longfellow. Walking away from the cemetery with his companion, he said, "That gentleman whose funeral we have just attended was a sweet and beautiful soul, but I cannot recall his name." The little anecdote has something very touching about it,—the old man asking for the name of the life-long friend, "the gentleman whose funeral we have just attended."

When I saw Mr. Emerson a year prior to his own death, this defect of memory was very noticeable, and extended even to the names of common objects, so that in talking he would use quaint, roundabout expressions to supply the place of missing words. He would call a church, for instance, "that building in the town where all the people go on Sunday."

This loss of memory of names is very common with old people, but it is not confined to them. Almost every one has at some time experienced the peculiar, the almost desperate, feeling of trying to recall a name that will not come. It is at our tongue's end; we know just what sort of a name it is; it begins with a B; yet did we try for a year it would not come. One curious fact about the phenomenon is that it seems to be contagious. If one person suddenly finds himself unable to recall a name, the person with whom he is talking will stick at it also. The name almost always gets the best of them, and they have to say, "Yes, I know what you mean," and go on with their talk.

I have never seen an explanation of this name-forgetfulness; but it is not difficult to find a reason for it. What needs explaining is that names are so obstinate, and grow more obstinate the harder we try, while other things we have forgotten and are trying to recall generally yield themselves to our efforts. Moreover, in other cases of forgetfulness we never experience that peculiar and most exasperating feature of name-forgetfulness,—the feeling that we know the word perfectly well all the time. This last fact, indeed, seems to show that we have not forgotten the name at all, but have simply lost the clue to it.

Now, let us inquire why this clue is so hard to find. Scientific men who study the human mind and make a business of explaining thought, emotion, memory, and the like, have an expression which they use frequently, and which sounds difficult, but which really it is very easy as well as interesting to understand. They speak of the association of ideas. The association of ideas means simply the fact which every one has noticed, that one thing tends to call up another in the mind. When you recall a certain sleigh-ride last winter, you remember that you put hot bricks in the sleigh; and this reminds you that you were intending to heat a warming-pan for the bed to-night; and the thought of warming the bed makes you think of poor President Garfield's sickness, during which they tried to cool his room with ice. Each of these thoughts (ideas) has evidently called up another connected—associated—with it in some way. This is the association of ideas: it is a law that governs almost all our thinking, as any one may discover by going back over his own thoughts. Perhaps an easier way to discover it will be to observe the rapid talk of an afternoon caller on the family, and see how the conversation skips from one subject to another which the last suggested, and from that to another suggested by this, and so on.

Just this association of ideas it is which enables us to recall things we have forgotten. Our ideas on any subject—say that sleigh-ride last winter—resemble a lot of balls some distance apart in a room, but all connected by strings. If there is any particular ball we cannot find,—that is, some fact we cannot remember,—then if we pull the neighboring balls it is likely that they by the connecting strings will bring the missing ball into sight. To illustrate this, suppose that you cannot remember the route of that sleigh-ride. You recall carefully all the circumstances associated with the ride, in hopes that some one of them will suggest the route that was taken. You think of your companions, of the moon being full, of having borrowed extra robes, of the hot bricks—Ah, there is a clue! The bricks were reheated somewhere. Where was it? They were placed on a stove,—on a red-hot stove with a loafers' foot-rail about it. That settles it. Such stoves are found only in country grocery-stores; and now it all comes back to you. The ride was by the hill road to Smith's Corners. It is as if there were a string from the hot-bricks idea to the idea that the bricks were reheated, to this necessarily being done on a stove, to the peculiar kind of stove it was done on, to the only place in the neighborhood where such a stove could be, to Smith's Corners; and this string has led you, like a clue, to the fact you desired to remember.

We can now return to the question asked above: In trying to recall names, why is it so difficult to find a clue? After what has been said, the question can be put in a better form: Why does not the association of ideas enable us to recall names as it does other things? The answer is, that names (proper names) have very few associations, very few strings, or clues, leading to them. It is easy to see this; for suppose you moved away from the neighborhood of that sleigh-ride many years before, and in thinking over past times find yourself unable to recall the name of the Corners where the store stood. The place can be remembered perfectly, and a thousand circumstances connected with it, but they furnish no clue to the name: the circumstances might all remain the same and the name be any other as well. The only association the name has is with an indistinct memory of how it sounded. It was of two words: the second was something like Hollow, or Cross roads, or Crossing; the first began with an S. But it is vain to seek for it: no clue leads to it. Were it the ride you sought to remember, many of its details could be recalled, some of which might lead to the desired fact; but a name has no details, and it is only possible to say of it that it sounded so and so, if it is possible to say that.

It may be asked, how, then, is it that we do remember some names, as those in use every day? Just as the multiplication-table is remembered,—by force of familiarity. Constant repetition engraves them in the mind. When in old age the vigor of the mind lessens, the engraving wears out and names are hard to recall, since there is no other clue to them than this engraved record.

There may be mentioned one slight help in recalling names when the case is important or desperate. It consists in going back to the period when the name was known and deliberately writing out a circumstantial account of all the connected incidents, mentioning names of persons and places whenever they can be remembered. If this is done in a casual way, without thinking of the purpose in view,—as if one were sending a gossipy letter of personal history to a friend,—the mind falls into an automatic condition that may result in producing the desired name itself. Every one must have observed that it is this automatic activity of the mind, and not conscious effort, which recovers lost names most successfully. We "think of them afterwards."