The problem with names….

memory-fixI have a problem remembering names. A serious problem. I’ve always had it, and it also includes remembering dates and places.

Last week I went one step further. Instead of forgetting a name, I actually called somebody by a wrong name altogether. Funnily enough I haven’t heard from them since. Yup – how to make friends and influence people. The fact that I hadn’t slept for a few nights, followed by the requisite root canal treatment the day before the conversation will hopefully have had something to do with it. Still. It’s a low even for me.

The point is, this problem isn’t something new. And I know I’m not the only one who has trouble remembering names. I just have to ask the band what the sound man’s name is again, and they usually don’t remember either. But my memory, or lack of it, goes several steps further. I generally prefix ‘pathological’ to my memory issues, as the more urgently I need to remember something, especially names, the more they run through my mental fingers like sand. Never ask me to be on your pub quiz team unless you wish to lose.

Unlike most of my colleagues, who exhibit short term memory loss, they generally have a good long term memory. This means I’m often regaled with songs, people, programmes, films etc from their childhood. I can’t do any of that. Though I have some generalised memories from my childhood and early adulthood, they completely lack detail. I have even forgotten some names of people I used to work with! Extremely frustrating.

I thought I’d look up some articles & research on the subject, to perhaps find some answers to my affliction. A couple of recent newspaper articles suggest that not remembering someone’s name is down to lack of interest. There is an element of truth in that, but only up to a point. The thing is, I am genuinely interested in many of the people I meet. I like to find out about their psyche, their upbringing, their experiences and ideas. To the point where I can be a little intrusive. So that really doesn’t fit.

I also hate offending people. I don’t shy away from confrontation where necessary, so sometimes it’s unavoidable, but I will always try to find the most sensitive way around it. And not remembering someone’s name does not make that person feel valued. How can this possibly be in my interest? People who share my affliction to a degree, are much more lenient towards it. Some find it both incomprehensible & unforgivable. It’s akin to shooting yourself in the foot. And I also spend time agonising over my faux pas, to the point where I lose sleep over it. So this cannot be a simple case of ‘lack of interest’.

Interestingly, studies all agree that people who have trouble remembering names are generally rather good at remembering faces, as it uses a different part of the brain. Alas this also doesn’t really apply to me. I remember faces to the point of realising that I’ve seen them before. If I expect to see someone in a certain place, I will recognise them. But the same person out of context gives me no end of trouble – I know I’ve seen them before but simply cannot place them. Furthermore, my facial recognition seems very inadequate and generalised, and if 2 people have some basic similarities, I will often confuse them with each other.

A more promising article was on ‘Anomic Aphasia’, which is a condition which inhibits remembering words, names and numbers. Apparently patients can often still speak fluently and with correct grammar, and find ways of getting around the missing words. That would actually describe me quite well. Nowadays, when a word, especially a name, flies predictably from memory when I need it, I use Google to find it, and thus get round it that way. If I cannot find it, I have to change my narrative.

So what causes this condition? According to research sometimes brain damage, sometimes it’s simply unknown. I wonder if my extremely rebellious rock n roll phase during my teens to my early twenties had something to do with it. There were a few incidents during my excesses where I forgot words altogether, and which led me to knocking it all on the head for good (no pun intended).

Or perhaps it’s something far more inherent. Apparently, as a young child, my mother took me for a barrage of tests, as I wasn’t reacting to outside stimuli in the same way as other children. Once I was engrossed in doing something, I completely blocked out everything that was going on around me. Even clapping next to me received no reaction at all. Tests didn’t show up any obvious anomalies, my hearing was ok, intelligence was high, reflexes worked. The doctors shrugged their shoulders and proposed perhaps a mild form of autism. Whether this is related to my poor memory is impossible to say. Either way, it’s with me for life I fear.

So how do I cope with this excessive lack of memory? I have to write everything down, and diligently live by to-do lists, which has conversely made me extremely organised. I have spread-sheets coming out of my ears. I love email as I can revise what has been said and when. I generally only get into serious hot water when I have to react quickly and on the spot, or when I bump into people unexpectedly. Learning lyrics takes an inordinate amount of discipline – even lyrics I have written myself – and I have to embark on a routine of repetition. I have to go to bed with my lyrics each night and go over them before I fall asleep, and then repeat this several times during the day until I barely have to think about them anymore. Luckily what has been denied to me in memory, has been compensated by high intelligence and a good dose of logic, which means there are many things I can and enjoy doing, and which don’t rely on memory. Writing songs and being a musician are luckily amongst them.

I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to everyone whose name I have forgotten, or got wrong, or will in the future, or whom I have mistaken for someone else. It won’t have been the first time, and it’s too optimistic to hope it’ll be the last. But I can assure you, it’s rarely from a lack of interest, and it’s highly embarrassing for me & plagues me regularly. And I hope you’ll forgive me….

If I ever get Alzheimers I’m buggered…

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