02
Feb
12

“It’s Right on The Tip of My Tongue”

Just yesterday, Vince, a 17-year-old from a prestigious private school, came for an Evaluation.  Soft-spoken, a bit self-conscious but wholly committed to doing his best, Vince demonstrated very sophisticated verbal aptitudes – faculties nearly essential in the particular school he attended where so many peers possessed superior abilities.

But Vince was struggling in school and seemed unable to overcome his diffuse but substantial achievement problems.

Though no pattern of deficits or even weaknesses emerged in the first of two test sessions, one interesting moment arose when I asked (as part of the IQ Battery’s “Information” subtest), “Who wrote ‘Great Expectations’?”

Vince shot up straight, clapped his hands together, snapped his fingers once and exclaimed, “Wait, I know this!  I KNOW I know it! Gimme a sec!”  But after some 40 seconds passed, after much grimacing and sighing and seat-shifting, he seemed to sag in his chair, as if he were deflating.  “I can’t think of his name.  I know it!  I know it!”  A moment later, he sighed deeply and groaned “Aw, I don’t know.”

At that point, I took out a piece of paper and asked him to guess how many letters were in the author’s last name.  At first, he looked amused, but after some encouragement, he said, “Uh, eight!”.  I said, “No, there are seven” and drew seven short dashes on the paper (like the kids’ game, “Hangman”)  The dialogue continued:

Me:  “How many letters are in his first name? “

 Vince:  “I’ll say seven”.  

ME:  “Right”  And I drew seven short dashes to represent the seven letters that Vince guessed were in the author’s first name.  Now, he was looking at two groups of seven dashes:

ME:  “What’s the first letter that comes to mind when you think of this writer?  Just guess.”

Vince:  “Okay, um…’I’?”

I put the letter “I” in the second dash of the last name group of seven

_ _ _ _ _ _ _  –  _I_ _ _ _ _.

ME: “Guess again.”

 Vince: “I dunno – ‘C”?

 I put the “C” in two spaces: C _ _ _ _ _ _  –  _IC_ _ _ _.

Me: “Next?”

Vince: “E”.

I put the two “E’s” in.  Now he was looking at:

C_ _ _ _E_  –  _ _ I C _ E_ _.

ME: “Any guess as to his name?”

Vince:  “No, not at all”.  

ME:  “Guess again”.

Vince:  “I keep thinkin’ “S'”.

ME:  “Right”  And I added the “S’s”

C_ _ _ _ES – _ IC_E_S.

ME: “Next?”

For the sake of brevity in this post, I continued to ask Vince to guess letters one by one,  and as he guessed a correct one, I inserted the letter in the appropriate space.  In order, he “guessed” the following letters, “D”, “K”,”A”, “N” and “R”.  He was now looking at:  C_ARLES DICKENS.

He’d guessed all the letters in the name without error, the number of letters in the name (OK, he guessed one extra space) . But he couldn’t recall the name !! How is it that he could take ALL those absolutely correct guesses ( and he was genuinely guessing as far as I could determine and he was concerned) and NOT KNOW THE NAME?

He looked again, threw his hands up in the air, smiled broadly but in some embarrassment, and nearly shouted, “Oh God! Charles Dickens, of course!”  Until that moment, he could not recall the name.

What Vince had been experiencing was what is popularly known as a mental block.  When this “block” occurs frequently in a person’s speech efforts, it is called “Dysnomia”  Often described as a “word-finding” difficulty, it entails spontaneous, inexplicable failures to recall names, dates, even math facts or word pronunciations on demand.  This disposition to “draw blanks” is not a manifestation of anxiety or an intellectual deficit.  It disrupts speech spontaneously and unpredictably in circumstances in which the speaker has to recall a name to answer a question or specify a particular object or person in a sentence he wants to communicate.

While it is fairly common for true Dysnomics to be able to recall individual letters or sounds of the desired name and while they often can specify facts associated with the desired name (e.g. Vince knew Dickens was an “English” writer of the 19th Century”), they all too commonly fail to “find”  names.  But later on, perhaps driving home or sitting in a chair watching TV, Dysnomics will spontaneously recall the name:  “It just popped into my mind!”

In future posts, I will describe how exasperating and  how frequently Dysnomia can impede academic achievement.  At the same time, I’ll review what I ultimately learned about Vince.  I don’t think he’s truly Dysnomic but…I’ve been wrong before. We’ll see.

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