Persistence of memory

    I was musing recently on how I remember names of people I haven’t seen for many years. That led on to thinking about how we remember vocabulary. In this short post, I mention 3 aspects of memory for names and words.

    Memory for names

    I’ve always had a good memory for names. I never had problems remembering people’s names. I would remember, spontaneously with no apparent effort, names of people I hadn’t met, or even thought about, for decades.

    For example, walking back to the office in London once, I passed 2 people in the street. Suddenly, I recognised one of the voices and remembered the name instantly, even before looking at the face to confirm the identification. He had been at my secondary school, though never in the same class and we had never come into much contact there. I hadn’t seen him since we left school 25 years earlier, but I still recognised his voice and name (and then his face) straight away.  

    My memory for names isn’t now quite as good as it was, but is still pretty good. I do now sometimes struggle slightly to recall a name. But even when that happens, I still have a strong feeling that the name is still sitting there in my memory and that it will soon come back to me. And almost always, the name does come back to me, especially when I stop trying to remember it consciously. Clearly, what is going on here is a short-lived failure to retrieve the name from memory, rather than a complete loss of the name.

    Recently, though I realised that I don’t seem to be recalling as easily one category of names: people who I came into contact with during my working life. In the past, I would still have expected to recall names of such people even if I knew them only briefly many years ago. But I’ve discovered that isn’t always the case now. What’s more, when I can’t recall their names, I no longer have that strong feeling that I still know the name and am just struggling to retrieve it. It feels as though I have actually forgotten the name entirely.

    This doesn’t apply to people I knew very well. It applies only to people I know briefly, a long time ago. And I haven’t noticed the same effect for names of people I knew in other ways (school, college, friends, neighbours). And for those other categories, even when I have brief problems in recalling a name, I still feel confident that the name is still in my memory and will pop back up of its own accord (or rather, of my memory’s own accord) as soon as I stop trying to recall it consciously.

    The explanation is perhaps that it is almost 3 years since I retired. I no longer think about people from my old working life. So, perhaps my memory of names from my working life (particularly of people I didn’t know well or for long) is stored in some place separate from the part of my memory that store other names. Perhaps I am losing access to that component of my memory because my mind knows I will never need to use it any again.

    Learning words in foreign languages

    When I was at school, I often found myself remembering words together with a mental image of the book I had learned the word from or a memory of the conversation or class lesson where I’d learnt the word. Although this is one type of well-known mnemonic technique for learning words lists, it wasn’t something I ever did consciously—my mind just seemed to do it automatically.

    Once I’d left school, I gradually stopped recalling words together with a memory of the environment that introduced them to me. I suspect the volume of new words I came across at university became too big for that technique still to work for me.           

    English words

    When I do cryptic crosswords, the answer is sometimes a word that I know but am fairly confident I’ve never written or said in my entire life— and in many cases I probably haven’t seen or heard the word often. When that happens, it sometimes surprises me that I am able to give the answer.

    Clearly, these English words are in my long-term memory and I can retrieve them with little or no effort, even though I have probably never retrieved them before actively (for production, as opposed to just for comprehension).  

    In fact, I sometimes have similar experiences with words in other languages too. For example, when my wife asks me what the German or French is for something, I often recall it instantly even if it is an obscure word that I haven’t come across (and certainly not said or written) for many years.


    The observations above reveal some interesting things about long-term memory:

    • words and names can stay undisturbed in long-term memory for many decades.
    • although we sometimes find it difficult to retrieve words and names from long-term memory, we generally haven’t forgotten them and our mind will bring them back to the surface once we stop worrying about the difficulty of retrieving them.
    • there may perhaps be something slightly different going on in the case of some names from early in my working life, now that I have retired. Perhaps my mind has subconsciously decided that I no longer need to retain this area of knowledge and has either lost it permanently or relegated it to some part of the brain where it is less accessible.  

    For Salvador Dali’s painting The Persistence of Memory, please see The Persistence of Memory – Wikipedia

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