What’s in a Name?

by Guy McKhann, M.D.

September 1, 2017

This is a column from Dana's print publication, Brain in the News.

I am sure I am not alone in this, but as I get older I have increasing problems remembering names. I may know all about a person—details about his job, house, car, and pet. I may even be able to come up with his partner’s name, but not his. I’ve tried various strategies, such as relaxing my mind or visualizing the last time I saw the person. I’ll go through the alphabet, hoping to extract his name from my memory. No luck.

Miraculously, some minutes, or even hours later, the name I was searching for suddenly appears, even though I wasn’t given it any conscious thought. My brain went off on its own, whether I was working on solving a problem, going for a walk, or talking on the phone. That last one can be disconcerting to my listener—not only do I suddenly speak the remembered name, but I often follow it with an expletive.

This phenomenon—brain activity during the so-called resting state of the brain, or free-form attention—is an active state, and is well described in the article, “How Goofing Off Helps Kids Learn.” This excerpt, from Lea Waters’ book, is aimed at compulsive teachers and parents who feel that the more specific and directed the learning, the better. However, many teachers who work with children, especially boys, have learned that presenting material in small blocks, interspersed with other activities, even physical activities, leads to much better results.

This approach works for older students, too. When I attended medical school there were, as there are now, enormous amounts of information to learn. We spent hours in the library struggling with anatomy or biochemistry. I soon learned that I could take only so much of that library existence. Every 45 minutes or so, I would go outside and throw a football around with a few of my colleagues. That was OK in the daytime, but what about at night? I developed the habit of running up and down two to three flights of stairs every hour or so. Some of my classmates, who already considered me somewhat of an eccentric, thought I was crazy. But it worked for me.

What is the brain doing during these “off” times? First of all, it is not off. Parts of the brain involved in active tasks shut down, but other areas become activated. This relates to the concept of the brain’s “default network”: the parts and networks of the brain we are using when not performing a specific task. As outlined by Marcus Raichle and his colleagues at Washington University, the brain is not inactive when we are no longer involved in specific tasks. Parts of the brain which were previously quiet become active—such as the areas related to planning, preparation for an activity, or response to internal thoughts. Raichle and his colleagues have demonstrated the parts of the brain involved and how they switch off and on. Current research is examining how these areas of the brain relate to our overall mental functioning.

Presently, I don’t know how to tap into my default brain. If I could, I would remember your name much more reliably.


What's in recalling a name

nelson kieff

9/11/2017 3:13:56 PM

I too am aging but wonder if this recall issue is stress related- age and chemistry from ACTH with other hormonal balance/depletion ?