Covid and Noun-Memory Effects

Ever since I got a bout of Covid a couple of years ago (late 2022), I’ve noticed memory problems of a very specific sort: Difficulty remembering names. Especially people names, but also other sorts of proper nouns. This is especially marked when it comes to remembering names of actors or authors, or not-too-close friends and family.

Interestingly, there has been little to no effect on my ability to remember the names of characters in TV shows, but I frequently forget actor names, even famous ones I should remember. For example, I’ve blanked several times on Steve Carrell, which is odd given that my whole career is based on writing about The Office.

I wasn’t sure this was just some personal aging thing, or something to do with the tumultuous times we’ve been living through, versus a Covid effect, but now I’m fairly certain it’s a Covid after-effect. I asked on Bluesky and Farcaster, and several people reported similar symptoms. It’s very specific. Other kinds of memory don’t seem to be affected. I don’t think it’s aging because 49 is not that old, and this is rather specific and sharply defined. And tumultuous times have been going on since a few years before Covid, and I didn’t notice any such effect before 2021.

For the first couple of months after the Covid bout (which was itself mild), I also had the commonly reported brain fog and fatigue effects, but those dissipated about 4-6 months in. But this noun-memory effect has persisted. Someone on Farcaster shared a link suggesting it might have something to do with Lithium, but it’s beyond my competence to parse the literature on that.

I thought of taking this concern to my doctor, but it’s more annoying (more weird googlings to do, and more note-taking required in meetings) than crippling or debilitating, plus I don’t even have the right concepts to describe this. So I thought I’d blog it and see who else has been experiencing this, and whether you can add any more color/evidence/ideas to this thing. And of course, if you’ve found any easy fixes, please do share.

My current working hypothesis at the cognitive level (I don’t understand the neurochemistry level) is that the ability to keep long-term narrative memories well-maintained through recall triggers, for low emotional-salience narratives, has sharply eroded. I care about TV stories, but not so much about the lives of the actors who play the characters. Distant friends and family aren’t an integral part of my personal narrative. Proper nouns in particular are affected more because unlike verbs or meaningful phrases (like titles of books), they have no real correlation to the content you’re trying to recall. For example, I just blanked on “A. O. Hirschman,” but the name has nothing to do with the “Exit, Loyalty, and Voice” book title, which I have no trouble recalling at all. It’s weirdly appropriate in a way, that names of people are getting stripped from my memory even as human authorship in general is getting stripped out of the world’s knowledge by AI.

I’d have to go back and check, but I think this has affected my writing style. I used to pride myself on my strong memory, and ability to quickly link abstractions to specific examples — which requires recall of proper nouns from low-emotional-salience stories — but as this has gotten harder, I’ve defaulted to writing more in vague generalities. I’d bet my use of proper nouns in my writing has dropped (and/or narrowed) since September 2022 if anyone wants to attempt a data-mining project.

One wild possibility — if this is indeed a general effect of Covid, maybe it explains the shift from memes (a sharp format that requires recall of proper nouns, both verbally and visually) to vibes, which are nonspecific.

Get Ribbonfarm in your inbox

Get new post updates by email

New post updates are sent out once a week

About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Elliot Corvinova says

    This is how my memory has always worked. If you find a fix for it, I’d be curious to know what it is and if it works for someone who has always had this issue.

  2. I dunno about covid, but I am extremely familiar with the noun-retrieval problem.

    In summer 2016, I had a moment like you describe, where I mentally reached for my then-girlfriend’s name— it did arrive, but only after a delay. It was bizarre enough to promote it to my awareness, and I began watching out for it. Over time, it got much worse– imagine if that small delay grew and grew until words often never arrived at all. I couldn’t pass software interviews because I couldn’t retrieve the names of concepts. I had to constantly improvise around words while in conversation. Eventually, my ‘internal monologue’ was basically wiped out, though I could effortfully pull in fragments of sentences here and there. I had an extremely weak sense of self, because I couldn’t tell stories about my self, my interests, what I cared about; the main way-of-being available to me was “be in the present”. My ability to listen and comprehend what others were saying was never affected, so I spent a lot of conversations being the “navigator” of others’ knowledge structures, asking questions.

Obviously that is all much more extreme than the problem you describe, but it sounds like it started off the same way, with the noun-retrieval problem.

    My best guess as to what caused it: six months prior to that girlfriend-name incident, I began taking wellbutrin, an antidepressant that is known to be anticholinergic. That means it blocks (or otherwise messes with) acetylcholine– a neurotransmitter that plays a huge role in memory. Sus.

    (It’s worth noting that many allergy meds and anti-nausea meds are also known to be anticholinergic.)

    I stopped taking wellbutrin (in 2020), and… this… helped some, but the damage was already done– I’d been taking it for four years– and I was left with ruined knowledge structures.

    What really, REALLY helped, and what I am guessing might be helpful for you, was taking galantamine, an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. It’s best known as a supplement that helps induce lucid-dreaming, but it’s also prescribed for treating early-stage Alzheimer’s under the name Razadyne. It immediately helped with the noun-retrieval problem and lack-of-internal-monologue problem, and in taking it the last four years, I’ve been able to rebuild my knowledge structures.

    I still take it (and still seems to be doing helpful things), but it’s become much more difficult to source in the last year. The OTC supplements one can find on amazon often don’t work. I recommend getting a prescription, if you can.

Let me know if you have any questions, happy to answer.

  3. M Seydel says

    I don’t have an anecdote to share, but I wanted to say I appreciate you speaking out. It looks like there are emerging consequences to even mild infections
    https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMe2400189 (cognition)
    https://fortune.com/well/article/covid-eye-health-retinal-damage/(eyes)

    This is the most specific cognitive thing I’ve come across though.

  4. I’m two years younger than you and I had these recall issues even before Covid. Did it get worse since Covid? Hard to say, but I’m hesitant to pin it on Covid.

  5. I have observed exactly the same behavior in my brain, but it was strongly correlated with the birth of my twin sons. Multiple months of effectively sleeping every other night destroyed my ability to name people or common objects, and that facility has never fully recovered. The worst it got was when I couldn’t remember the word for a fork. Things started to improve after I was able to get regular sleep again.

    At this point, the damage seems to be limited to proper nouns, as you describe. I’ve not discovered anything that improved the situation further.

  6. This happens for me too. Not sure if it’s age, weed use or possibly I had covid without knowing it in early 2020.

    I find supplementation with lion’s mane mushroom reverses it.

  7. I’ve also been having problems remembering names. Until you brought up the Covid angle I always assumed it was because I deleted my Facebook account (around the same time).

    For all its faults, Facebook is really good at helping me remember the names of far-flung acquaintances since it was basically a daily spaced-repetition exercise showing me the names and faces of pretty much everyone I’ve ever met. That’s actually the biggest thing I miss about not having my account any more.

    That doesn’t explain getting worse at remembering actor/author names though.

  8. Yes, for me the first most obvious thing to go was the name of actors, somewhere around 60 yrs. Quite frightening, but I soon realised information about actors is low priority and the brain is just rebalancing its portfolio. By then I was full of memories and various abstractions – concepts, heuristics, patterns – and as they say “every object obscures another”.

    In another phase you start losing the bottom of your stack – “now, what was I doing before all these alligators showed up?” It’s kinda humerous and quite manageable!

  9. jennifer says

    i’m only 30 and i’ve noticed this. i don’t think it has had any effects on my writing but i do notice my recall for specific names of concepts is much slower. i’m less articulate in the immediate moment; in fact, it’s only through writing that i can really express what i mean but it takes much longer than it used to. i started noticing it at the beginning of covid, i think just from lack of stimulation in quarantine, but it got worse after i contracted covid in late 2022. i haven’t found any fixes but i’m sure lack of sleep/overstimulation of daily life doesn’t help.

  10. Daniel Brooks says

    I’m 43 and have a huge network of acquaintances that I’ve always struggled to keep track of names with. Facebook has been some help with this problem, but lately in the past couple of years it’s been getting much worse. My thinking and conversational style is intensely associative and when I draw a blank on a name or proper noun it often arrests the train of thought, possibly out of shame.

    I never linked it to covid, I’ve often just thought it might be more related to not meditating as consistently in the past. And of course the ever increasing corpus of information I feel compelled to consume.

  11. I stumbled on this after reading your outstanding post on The Office management theory, and this is a definite moment of seredipity. Living on a remote ranch I haven’t, to my knowledge, had any Covid infection, but you’ve described precisely the memory issues I’ve had (along with fatigue and headaches) since my second Covid booster. I thought I was losing my mind because of the very specificity of memory retrieval – putting names to faces of celebrities / actors / athletes. It seems to be a form of recent-onset face-blindness, as I can easily relate who was in my favorite movies, but if a series of photos flash across a movie trailer, I struggle to identify them. It is maddening. My recall issues are worst when I’m fatigued. I can still come up with the name if I use a laborious system of going through the alphabet until it keys in on the letter sequences, but the facility with which I once remembered and identified every face I’ve ever known is gone. It’s not just famous faces, either – it’s recalling former colleagues. I suspect the same brain inflammation that Covid infection causes is also triggered by the booster, with similar lingering effects. Thanks for writing this very candid post; I don’t know about you, but it’s not easy for me to admit to memory issues.

  12. Wonder if this change would be reflected in Google search terms – people grasping for names instead of taking the time to remember. I know I have done it.

  13. Jiaoning Bu says

    I had the COVID mind fog for a little while, and have had some memory effects noticeable afterwards. I will pay attention to see if it has to do with proper nouns and names. I do often have to ask myself, “What is the name of ….?” And just wait 4-24 seconds for my brain to give me the answer. I’m 44.

Leave a Comment

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.