I WAS at a social function recently and saw a face in the crowd that was not only familiar, but also filled me with warmth. She saw me, too. We nodded affectionately across the room, hinting that as soon as we had finished our conversations we’d embrace.
Sweet memories came flooding back, the nights we shared talking until dawn … I recalled her husband’s plight and wondered about him and her children and what became of various issues we’d discussed intimately. But (and many of you reading this can guess what’s coming) I couldn’t remember her name.
This happens more frequently these days. It isn’t simply the ageing brain, as many suggest. I’ve just completed a masters that required me to remember the technological complexities of video production. I also remember the tiniest intimate details people tell me.
It’s true common words do increasingly fail me due to wear and tear. Like many, I sometimes struggle to remember the word “cucumber” or stare blankly at Brad Pitt. Many objects are now “thingos”, which has prompted my (younger) partner to affectionately call me, “The silliest intelligent person I’ve ever met.”
But the doctor tells me that as we get older we hold more information in our heads, and naturally prioritise what we concentrate on, which explains why I did well at university, but can’t remember “artichoke”.
Most humiliating for everyone is forgetting the name of a known person. It’s so prevalent, there are countless medical explanations. The one I favour also concerns information overload. If the “name forgetting” happens in a social setting like the event I was attending, it’s because we are performing: chatting, recalling details, networking or thinking ahead or back to the past.
Bombarded with information, the brain chooses what it’s going to focus on. There we are, busily selling ice to Eskimos, when a familiar face peeks out of the crowd. Too much information — we go blank.
Then comes the anxiety, and the panic of forgetting as the nameless person approaches. Because an introduction is often expected, our fight-or-flight responses are triggered. Once adrenalin hits the brain, there’s no hope the name will come.
My technique is to bluff: to wow the nameless arrival with what I do remember until someone introduces themselves and “Jenny” then declares “I’m Jenny” and I say “Oh, I’m being so rude” and introduce Jenny again while praying I remember the other people’s names.
Anyway, I found someone who knew this beloved woman, and told me her name. As she approached, I said “Carol …” and hugged her. I asked intimate details. She asked me about my daughter and everything on earth. “You have an amazing memory,” she said.
“You do, too,” said I.
“No …” she blushed, “… please don’t be offended, but I don’t remember your name.”
Twitter @OstrowRuth Ruthostrow.com