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Jack Smith

Association doesn't work very well as a mnemonic device because you often forget what you're associating

February 16, 1987|Jack Smith

This season's favorite subject of biological research seems to be the brain, especially memory.

And none too soon.

My memory in some areas remains unimpaired. I can still remember a few lines of Shakespeare; I can still recite the first four lines of the Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I can still recall most of my vocabulary.

I can summon up such words as labyrinthine and recondite when I need them and also hard ones like preantepenultimate (fourth from last) and nilometer (an instrument for measuring the height of water in the Nile, especially during its flood), even though they rarely come up.

Occasionally, however, as I believe I have mentioned here before, I get up out of my chair and go into another room and when I get into the other room I forget what I went into it for.

This is not especially alarming. You can always find something to do in the room, even though it isn't what you had in mind. For example, if you happen to get up and go into the kitchen, and can't remember what you went into the kitchen for, you can always get a glass of water, or look in the refrigerator for an apple, and you don't feel so frustrated.

This type of memory loss is of course very common, especially among people who are no longer in the bloom of youth. According to a recent article on memory in Newsweek, memory begins to decline in the 30s. It is not true, though, that the loss is continuous and serious with age.

I am encouraged by a current theory that older people have trouble with short term memory (STM) because they have so much more to remember than the young. Consequently, they become selective, and don't remember what seems unimportant.

"Now," according to the article, "researchers are questioning whether memory deficits suggest that older adults are smarter at figuring out what can safely be forgotten."

Only 1% of adults have a photographic memory, Newsweek says. "The other 99% are plagued with forgetting."

Some people have a specific problem called prosopagnosia--they cannot recognize faces.

I must confess that I have this disease, though I had never heard the word before. I find it hard to remember people's names and to put names with the proper faces.

I meet many people at social events, many of them very charming and memorable; yet when I encounter these same people only a few weeks later, I cannot remember them.

Women come up to me smiling, with outstretched hands, and when I draw a blank they will remind me that we sat next to each other at a luncheon a month before and had a wonderful conversation. It is very embarrassing.

Name cards are helpful, but when you have to bend over a woman and scrutinize her breast to read her name on a name card, you have lost whatever advantage learning her name might provide.

I have tried various mnemonic devices. I sometimes race through the alphabet, hoping that an initial letter will ring a bell. But this rarely works. My wife and I once drove all the way home from Bakersfield without being able to think of the name Jason Robards. I must have gone through the alphabet six times, but got no clue from J and R. Finally, the next day, it just popped into my mind. It's all there. The trick is to recall it.

The important factor, according to Newsweek, is concentration. You must concentrate on the name when you are first introduced to someone, then try to associate it with something else.

Say you are introduced to someone named Poppy Bellamy. You think, "flower and belle amie," which I believe means "beautiful friend" in French. Then, when you meet her again, you remember flower and belle amie , and voila! you have it.

It doesn't work. In that situation I would come up with Flora Bon Ami, or something equally disastrous.

Years ago I had a dentist who told me that another of his patients was a colleague of mine at The Times. "Bill Mudge," he said. "You know him?"

I knew him well. His name was Bill Dredge. I had no doubt that the dentist had used the association method to remember the name. "Dredge. What does a dredge do? It dredges up mud." So what he came up with was Mudge.

Many politicians have been successful mainly because of their ability at remembering names. At social functions they seem to remember the name of every important person. But I happen to know that many of these remarkable figures employ aides who stand at their elbows and whisper the names of anyone who approaches with hand extended. There are some otherwise inconsequential people who can develop that special skill. They become kingmakers.

My wife has always been good at names and I count on her to perform this function for me. But we tend to get separated at parties and I find myself suddenly in a wilderness of strangers.

I suggest, for the sake of all prosopagnosiacs, that everyone speak his own name when meeting anyone of only slight acquaintance.

All you have to do is smile and hold out your hand and say, "Hi. I'm Flora Bon Ami. We met at the Daltons'."

Then I say, "Of course," as if I had never doubted it. "I'm Jack Smith."

And then I wander off, wondering what I'm doing there in the first place.

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