The way the brain works remembering things

A couple days ago, I was trying to remember the word ‘drum’ (not the instrument, the thing you store stuff in). I couldn’t think of ‘drum,’ but my brain thought of all the synonyms and near-synonyms (barrel, vat, canister) and even some descriptors (cylinder) but it couldn’t quite think of the word I was looking for. Why is that? How come the brain sometimes thinks of everything similar to what you’re trying to think of, but can’t quite think of the actual thing you’re trying to think of?

Nobody knows for sure. Let’s say you have a mental image of a drum in your head. That image may be strongly associated another word than drum, such as barrel. Each time you try to name the image you get barrel like it’s the top hit on Google. Now you try to think of a synonym for barrel. You may think that’s easy but how many times have you done that? The synonyms for barrel may not be strongly associated in your mind. So things like that can lead to failure to come up with a word. And then sometimes your mind is just screwing with you.

I wish I knew. It happens to me all the time. My wife asked me a couple of days ago what was the name of one of my colleagues. She is Persian and it is not a common name. It is right on the tip of my tongue as I write this.

There is a word for this, but I can’t come up with it.


Senior moments.

Things get stored in several different parts of the brain, sorted by different categories. Another thing that you might have remembered, without fully remembering the word, is that it started with D and was a short word. Depending on your experience with drums, you could have remembered drum moving equipment, things stored in drums, or places that you’ve seen drums stored.

Heh-heh. Bung tool. :smiley: (drum associated memory)


Then there’s episodic memory. I remember the time that my boss accepted delivery of eight drums of crushed water hyacinths for high-solids anaerobic digestion tests. He forgot to crack the bungs when they were stored. They fermented really well in the drums. He was still there when two of the bungs blew out, spraying partially rotted crushed water hyacinth juice all over.

He hurried to crack the rest of them. Then, because I wasn’t there that day, he had to clean it all up.

I was so glad I wasn’t there that day. I still smile when I remember it.

from my post of fifteen years ago:

Yep. Don’t think of the letters on the page, think of the sounds. An “L” followed by a vowel, with a v in there somewhere, ends with an “wah” sound. Subcategory, wife, perfume = girly shit = love. That’s often how I misremember things.

My mind works by making connections, like big file drawers with “see also” on many files.

Your first one, I get, because the “Sar-” sound is there in the errors and the correct name. The last two, I find very hard to follow. My brain doesn’t work like yours.

Try taking Dopamax for a while.

Anomia is actually one of the side effects of it (Topamax, that is, but there’s a reason Dopamax is such a common nickname for it).

But I don’t think of either, really. Obviously what my mind does isn’t quite as self-explanatory as I thought when I wrote that (originally in 2000), but it’s neither “it sounds like” nor “it looks like when printed”. It’s more like my mind playing charades with itself:

“Last name… like Russian, OK… about three syllables, ‘Sar’-something… what makes it Russian-like, it’s the word ending, one of those ‘tov’ or ‘sky’ or ‘chev’ kind of endings…”

“OK, French-language kind of word, one with a prefix-plus-apostrophe… L’ or d’ or something followed by something short with one of those ‘French’ endings like “oi” or “ge” or “ue”, let’s see…”

“Umm, 'twas a pair of words, or pseudo-words that sound like they mean something but don’t really… did they rhyme? Not necessarily but if not rhyming they were balanced in some other way like the same length or the same number of syllables or both started with the same letter, that kind of thing… probably 2 syllables each…”
It seems quite odd to me to imagine someone recalling a word exclusively on the basis of sound. I can’t imagine misremembering or associating “L’Envoi” with “lawnboy” unless I had never seen it in print (and didn’t know the word) and had only heard it spoken out loud. Even then the phonetic departure from a word I recognized would probably stand out more in my recollection than the word it reminded me of. e.g., “Umm, it was almost but not quite a regular word, like ‘loubre’ instead of ‘louvre’, or ‘quansum’ instead of ‘quantum’…”

It is also worth noting that memories are not like data stored on a hard drive or SSD; they are patterns of sequential and parallel neural networks which are fungible; as the memories is retrieved or new memories in the same phenomenological area are acquired, the memories may be distorted, conflated, or even manufactured from whole cloth. Oliver Sacks reports in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat that he has a clear recollection from childhood of the Blitz bombings in London and even seeing a building destroyed, despite the fact that he had already been relocated to a countryside house. It turns out that his brother had been in London during the Blitz and reported in detail having observed the building destroyed by a Luftwaffe bomb, and Sacks had just manufactured an in-place memory from the description.

Memory is a very untrustworthy appliance; it takes substantial discipline and training to remember data or events accurately, and memories are easily lost or distorted if not recalled frequently and distinctly. On the other hand, you can often remember less detailed memories like the way someone walks or the sound of a voice with extremely high fidelity even if you haven’t seen or heard the person in decades. We have absolutley no explanation for this and almost no practical understanding of how complex, composite memories are formed and recalled.

BTW, a great film that is focused on the uncertainty of memory and its impact on other cognative functions is the Charlie Kaufman-penned film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. (It is also the best performance that Jim Carrey will give in a movie, ever.) Although it is often compared to Momento (where the amnesia of the central character is more of a plot device, albeit a critical one) it is really a very different and much more poignant film about how reliant our basic personalities are on this very unreliable cognative function.


I have this problem with actor Clive Owen. (I even had to pause to think while writing this.) For some reason the name “Colin” pops into my head, then as I start mentally scrolling through the actors named Colin I remember “It’s not Colin, but close…” But by then “Colin” is front and center and no matter how hard I try, I can’t get him to move out of the way.