The Name Game

Are you old enough to remember the song The Name Game, where letters in names were replaced with other letters and you came up with a nonsensical line such as this one for the name Shirley -

Shirley, Shirley bo Birley Bonana fanna fo Firley
Fee fy mo Mirley, Shirley!

Those names made out of Shirley are much like what I’ve been experiencing this week.  For some reason I lost the proper names of many long time friends and even family members, and have been creating nonsense names in their place to fill in the gaps.

Here’s an example of the scenario: I’m at work, and need to refer someone to another person in our institution – It’s a person who I have worked with for over a dozen years and know well.  So why is it that all I can do is say ‘you’ll need to talk to  (insert long pause here while I struggle to find the name) you know, that woman in purchasing.  She’s the one who will get you a check for your expenses.’  It isn’t until much later that her name will suddenly pop into my mind, and I exclaim to no one in particular, Shirley!  Yes, this particular person’s name really is Shirley.

My office coworker is sympathetic as I struggle to find the proper name; I know the more I struggle to retrieve the name, the further away it will slip.  The only way to get it back is to stop trying to find the name.  Curiously, this lack of words doesn’t appear to apply to other things – I still have other nouns, it was just the proper nouns (names of people) that were elusive this week. This inability to retrieve familiar names even when the person was right in front of me, continued for about three days. Then my brain did some sort of reset and I was back to being able to retrieve those names without hesitation when I needed them in conversation.

I’ve had this happen before where the proper nouns seemed to be erased from my memory, but fortunately it doesn’t seem to be permanent – or at least not yet.  The ability to retrieve them has always returned in a day or so.  Cognitive problems are a concern for almost all of us with MS, and I try not to think too hard on the possibility of this becoming a long term problem, but at the time when I know something is amiss, it’s hard to not be concerned.

From what I read, the phenomenon of losing proper nouns is usually linked to damage (lesions) in the left temporal lobe.  Could these lapses for me be associated with my MS?  I may have those pesky lesions creating temporary havoc in that circuitry and causing the names of friends and loved ones to disappear.  This condition is called proper name anomia. In The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, the author writes:

“in all reported cases of proper name anomia, the left cerebral hemisphere was damaged. …in a group of over one hundred neurological patients who had each suffered a single lesion, injury to the left temporal pole tended to result in proper-name retrieval deficits.”1

I understand that lesions may be temporarily active or dormant, depending on what stage the body is in repairing the myelin sheath.  Perhaps these times when I encounter the name game problem, my brain is in need of repair. Another explanation I found that supports this idea is

“semantic information about people appears to be stored separately from other forms of knowledge such as knowledge of objects. Anatomical evidence suggests that amodal person-specific semantic knowledge is stored in the right anterior temporal lobe where it has close connections with modality specific recognition systems. Failures to retrieve names in proper name anomia may be caused by impairments to the links between semantic knowledge in the right anterior temporal lobe and lexical representations in the left temporal pole.”2

In simpler terms, semantic knowledge means I can picture in my brain the face of the person and how I might know them but that knowledge isn’t transferred smoothly to the other side of my brain to retrieve the correct name.

For now I don’t need to worry about missing names because they are back in order in my brain, but now I know when that happens, what might be the cause.  I just hope it will be a long while before I play the name game again.

Wishing you well,


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