Monday, January 16, 2006

The First Letter

You've probably had an experience like this: you're trying to remember someone's last name, and you think to yourself, "I don't remember what it is, but I know it starts with a K."

This seemed weird to me the first time I really thought about it. If you don't know the name, how do you know what letter it starts with? But our memory may be more like a network of associations than a computer memory that stores exact data. So this no longer puzzles me. Instead, I've been thinking about the following variations . . .

How many times have you had this experience? You're trying to remember someone's name, and you think, "I don't remember what it is, but I know the second to the last letter is a T." Probably never, right? What about, "I don't remember what it is, but I know it had three vowels and six consonants." Never, right? Why is that? What is so special about the first letter, that we are more likely to associate a word with its first letter than with some other fact about the word? Is this a learned behavior, based on all those "Z is for Zebra" type of phrases we saw when we were learning to read?

When we try to remember a complex phrase, we might make up an acronym out of the first letters of the words, but we wouldn't try to remember the pattern of the last letters of the words. Why not?

When Japanese people forget words, do they often remember the first kanji but not the second or third? I don't know the answer to this, but somehow I doubt that it works that way. It seems like something to do with alphabetic writing.

5 comments:

memer said...

Good points. I wonder which letter arabs use? The dyslexic?

Foobario said...

It all comes down to years of brainwashing using the magical intonation that starts "aybeeceedeeyeeeffgee..."

They show you little bins to put stuff in while your brain is still forming, and before long those little bins start to seem like reality. Makes me wonder what else we are conveniently dropping into little bins instead of actually thinking about.

Michelle K said...

Is it really the first letter that we think of? Or the first sound?

I've often found myself saying, "I think it starts with a K or a C" or "a C or an S" because I know how the name starts, I just can't remember anything afterwards.

And we fear sounding stupid if we say "I think it starts with a "ssssss" sound.

Just my two cents, whether you wanted a real answer or now.

Peter said...

I get a first letter and sort of a feel for the person,and that's all. No name. Sometimes the first letter's wrong, but the feel is never wrong. So I'm amazed at my recall even if I get every letter wrong. After fourteen years, though, my wife is still amazed at my lack of recall.

LeesMyth said...

Retrieval of items in one's memory banks - yes, sometimes that can be done with initials.

We were sitting around trying to think of the name of X's former lawyer, and none of us could think of his name. So I said, "I think his initials were R, M" and immediately a name came to me. As soon as I said, "It could be Robert Massey," everyone agreed that was it. And it was.

A few smells (autumnal smell of damp, singed leaves) and sounds (the call of a mourning dove) are powerful memory triggers for me. They bring me right back to my early childhood in Wheaton IL ... along with a strange sense of loss and disorientation.