When older people begin to mutter whatshisname or whatshername, we all assume that’s what happens in old age. Onomastic aphasia, the medical name for whatshisname condition (the name is on the tip of your tongue but can’t recall), conjures up painful images of dementia: memories of the past slowly slipping away in old age.

As a 75-year-old I’m sure I’m not alone in this, the name will never come to me however hard I tried to recall it. But minutes or hours later, when I was not consciously thinking about the name, it suddenly appears.

Contrary to popular belief, we do not spend most of our time engaged in goal-directed thoughts, and occasionally we have blips of irrelevant thoughts that pop up on the radar. The truth is that most of the time we are engaged in less directed, unintended thoughts, and that state is routinely interrupted by periods of goal-directed thoughts. The human brain prefers its default network, a region that remains active when the brain is supposedly doing nothing. But it immediately springs into action when some task is required.

When the brain is in the so-called resting state, it is doing a tremendous amount. During its ‘off’ times the brain may not be involved in specific tasks, but it is still busy working out responses to internal thoughts or anticipating what needs to be done in the future. This gives our brain an amazing capacity to multitask. Without multitasking, we’d be pretty constrained creatures, indeed.

The names I try to remember pop up when my brain is in its default mode. How could we tap into the default network of our brains?

To shift instantly into brain’s default mode, or free-form attention as opposed to on-task focus, all an individual has to do is goof off, advises Lea Waters, founding director of the Centre for Positive Psychology at the University if Melbourne.

In her recent book, The Strength Switch: How the New Science of Strength-Based Parenting Can Help Your Child and Teen to Flourish, she advises parents and teachers to move away from the idea that the more specific and directed the learning, the better. The brain’s default mode has many benefits, including children’s learning and their development.

‘Good goofing off is not texting or talking on the phone, which pulls the child into the external world,’ she advises. ‘It’s about giving a child’s brain the chance to reboot and come back sharper and more attentive when the time arrives.’

Don’t worry if you can’t recall the name of the writer of this article, even after goofing off. Fading brainpower is not an inevitable part of growing older. It’s a myth.

Michael Ramscar, a linguistics researcher at Universität Tübingen in Germany, ascribes the popular belief, in part, to Greek mythology. Eos, the goddess of dawn, begged Zeus to grant immortality to Tithonus, a mortal whom she had married. Zeus agreed to this request. But she forgot to ask also for perpetual youth dooming Tithonus to an eternity of physical and mental decay. Ramscar remarks that Tithonus’ account of ageing echoes loudly in brain-science literature, which portrays old age as a protracted episode in mental decline, in which memories dim, thoughts slow down and problem-solving abilities diminish.

He suggests that many of the assumptions scientists currently make about ‘cognitive decline’ are seriously flawed and, for the most part, formally invalid. He agrees that our brains work slower in old age but only because we have stored more information over time. ‘The brains of older people do not get weak,’ he says. ‘On the contrary, they simply know more.’ Older brains are so jam-packed with the knowledge that they simply take longer to retrieve the correct bits of information. This brimming store of knowledge helps older brains to compensate for any loss related to ageing.

Ramscar also has an explanation for whatsisname condition. There is a greater variety of given or first names than there were two generations ago. This means the number of different names we learn over our lifetimes has increased dramatically. Locating a name in memory, therefore, is far harder than it used to be. It’s true even for computers; that’s why we need supercomputers.

© Surendra Verma 2017

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