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Remembering the Known Unknown, Redux

It happened again. I tried to remember a person (two persons, actually) and remembered several things about them, but not their names. This sounds ordinary enough (especially if you’re a Boomer) but hold on a sec. There’s more.

First, if you’ve never read this entry of mine, it’s might be worth a look. If it’s TL,DR, I’ll summarize: I tried to remember the name of a favorite poet, and failed. However, I did remember that his name was the same as the name of Indiana Jones’ rival in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I couldn’t remember that name either, but I knew it was the same name. After I had gone on to something else for awhile, the name popped up out of nowhere: The poet. The rival.

Clearly, human memory is not a set of SQL tables.

So the other night, I was reading some article online, and it mentioned the hapless Jayne Mansfield in passing, referring to her as a classic “blonde bombshell.” That’s a phrase I hadn’t heard in some time, and after I wondered briefly why there were no brunette bombshells, a peculiar thing occurred to me: There had been two blonde bombshells whose names were odd but very similar, structurally. I remembered that the women themselves were similar, but then again, “blonde bombshell” was a type in its day, and there were many, including Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, and Jayne Mansfield. Ok. I dug deeper, and came up with another weird recall: Their names both had three parts…but no names appeared. Why is it that I could know that two names each had three parts and were structurally similar, without remembering the names themselves?

Two hours later, while I was reading ARs of the mass storage chapter in my Raspberry Pi book, two names surfaced in the back of my head simultaneously:

Mamie Van Doren.

Monique Van Vooren.

There’s nothing remarkable about either of them, and as I am not a fan of blonde bombshells to begin with, I had to wonder why I remembered them at all. Then again, I can sing the entire theme song of Car 54, Where Are You? which hasn’t been first-run since 1963. Memory is a weird business–especially when it stops working effectively.

Back in the entry I cited from 2013, I posited that we could think before we could speak, and so we probably store the names of things separately from their attributes. I still think this is true, but I think it’s even more peculiar that I could remember attributes of two names without remembering the names themselves. The key may be that we use different neural machinery to store names and attributes, so if the attributes of names are to be remembered, they get remembered by the attribute machinery rather than the name machinery.

It makes evolutionary sense: Knowing that the guy in the next cave is short, strong as an ox, has a stone axe buried permanently in his skull, and has a bad temper is a survival skill. It didn’t matter that he didn’t have a name when there were only four caves in the neighborhood. The attribute that needed to be remembered when looking his way was “twitchy badass.” Names probably evolved out of attributes; think “Eric the Red.” But the attributes came first. Names came about when the world grew so complex that passing knowledge among peers through shared experience was no longer enough.

Evolution doesn’t replace. It overlays. So all that weird freaky ancient stuff is still down there somewhere, and is more loosely coupled to the newer stuff than we might like–especially when it’s the newer stuff that starts to malfunction first.


  1. Tom Roderick says:

    Interesting postt. It makes me think of something I read in ONE of the biographies of Richard Feynman that I have read. It was a conversation with his Father when, after Richard asked him why his Father never taught him the names of the flora and fauna around the summer camp, his Father explained that knowing the name of something doesn’t really mean that you really KNOW anything about it.

    Your concept of names originating tags for more complex knowledge, of people or anything else, makes a lot of sense and it continues to evolve as new names are created for concepts that need them and often old words are re-purposed for new concepts.

  2. SteveF says:

    “Stuff to Blow Your Mind” just had a podcast on Tip-of-the-Tongue:

    1. Good stuff. Thanks for letting me know.

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