One of the irritating things about ageing is, as many have pointed out (if they remembered to), that one's short-term memory becomes less efficient. It's possible to remember what you were doing at 2am on 10 August 1977 (I do, and I'm not sharing that memory!) but forget where you put the coffee you were just drinking. It's happened more times than I can remember that I've had to undertake a thorough search of the house to find it, and by the time I do, it's cold. Funnily enough, I suffer from this phenomenon to a much greater degree when my five-year-old granddaughter is about, as minding her requires the ability to multitask to a degree that I now don't have – if I ever did.
I understand the memory problem is caused by the fact that the brain is like a computer with finite storage, and that as you reach the years when you are supposed to be supremely knowledgeable and wise, your brain is reaching the limit of its storage capacity and can't easily fit in new information. Apparently, the way to deal with this problem is to announce out loud as you put down the coffee mug: 'I am now placing this coffee on the third shelf of the kitchen cupboard'. In theory, the brain ought to say: 'Hang on a minute, that's a silly place to put it as you just happened to have it in your hand when you opened the cupboard to replace the jar of coffee!' But my brain isn't intelligent enough to think of that one.
What's in a name?
I cannot blame my age, though, on the fact that I struggle with remembering names – as I could never remember people's names when I was young. I'm not talking about the way you mix up names – like I could tell my granddaughter 'don't do that, Shackleton, it’s naughty', (Shackleton being the cat and he's now too old to be naughty) or, conversely 'I've just let you in, Olivia, and now you want to go out again!' to the said cat. No, I think the reason I forget some people's names is because that name just does not suit them. I once worked with a colleague called Forbes who I always thought of as Ross – Ross suited him much better, and I found out later he had a son called Ross, so maybe he unconsciously realised his name was just wrong.
My son is probably relieved he was born a boy, as if he had been a girl he would have been Nesta after my mother-in-law, the grande dame/hedgehog lady I mentioned the other week
. The name means 'beautiful' in Welsh but s/he could have been called Nessie for short, which lacks a certain gravitas. As it is, he is Richard Ludovick (with a 'k') after John Buchan's heroes, Richard Hannay and Sandy Arbuthnot – for in Greenmantle
we are told Sandy's first name is Ludovick, not Alexander as might be suggested by his nickname. Sandy was always my favourite Buchan character but it would have been unfair to inflict 'Ludovick' on my son as a first name – as it was, his schoolfriends would refer to him as Richard Lunatic, which is probably no worse than Dick!
Interestingly, the Ancient Greeks believed that a person's given name would determine their course in life – so Helen of Troy, whose name is possibly derived from the Greek word meaning to destroy or conquer, should not be blamed for the Trojan war – it was the name her parents gave her that was the problem. And today some research by school teachers suggests that students with the whackier names, like Chardonnay, Tofu or KTee, are naughtier than those called John or Mary. But, of course, this might be a result of the teachers' assumption that such children are
the naughtiest – those of us called Mary might have just been craftier at hiding our misdeeds!
… or a title?
I noticed that for the extra piece I wrote last week, I was just Mary Brown – I imagine the estimable editor of the Scottish Review
usually refers to me as Doctor Mary Brown as it makes me sound more intelligent than I actually am. One unusually blunt critic once informed me that I was the stupidest intelligent person they had ever come across, which I suppose is telling it like it is!
Like Alexander McCall Smith's detective heroine, Isobel Dalhousie, for years I never used my 'title' as I thought it sounded pretentious. It was only after critics like the aforementioned one continued to patronise me that I decided to use it to annoy them back. It can have unfortunate consequences though, as a fellow PhD, who took every opportunity to use the title, found when he was on a plane and a passenger had a heart attack. The cabin crew understandably thought he was just the person to help – thankfully they found another 'proper' – that is medical – doctor on board and the passenger survived.
Often, as my critic realised, having several qualifications does not automatically make you intelligent. Conversely, I have met several people with minimal education who would have produced an excellent PhD study because they were natural researchers – intelligent people who like to ask questions and try to discover the answers (I'm just wondering, now, a propos my earlier thoughts, whether children called 'Einstein' or 'Higgs-Bosun' would tend to become scholars?).
If anyone thinking of embarking on a doctoral study happens to read this, my message would be – do it. Without going into the nuances of personality theory, academics tend to prefer the type of person who is interested in ideas and then scientifically codifying them. For people like me, who like ideas but then prefer to play around with them in an unscientific way, the answer is, as I suggested before about managing depression, just to pretend you are a logical, scientific thinker. How would such a person think? How would they write?
If you keep up the 'pretence' for long enough, you will have developed the mindset you need to finish your thesis. And you won't need the services of one of those websites which offer to write your PhD thesis for you – when I last heard, the going rate was £60,000, and in my view that is grossly overpriced for a shoddy product written by someone who doesn't love the topic as you do – at least I hope you do, as it's going to turn you into the acknowledged expert for the foreseeable future.
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant