Why Some People Are Really Bad at Remembering Names
Cue Miranda Priestley at a charity benefit in The Devil Wears Prada, smiling at a man coming toward her she cannot name, and nor can her assistant Emily who is blanking in the moment, panicking at having let her boss down. It’s right when Andy swoops in with the name, saving everyone involved the embarrassment of not being able to greet by name Ambassador Franklin and his the woman he left his wife for, Rebecca.
We’ve all had these utterly mortifying moments, when we see a person walking toward us, smiling and waving, and cannot, for the life of us, figure out what they’re called. In real life, we don’t have a surprisingly efficient Andy to whisper our salvation discretely in our ears; these instances often lead to us mildly offending the other person, leaving them feeling they’re not worthy of being remembered, whereas the truth is — it was us all along, not them.
First, it’s possible we don’t remember names simply because the person isn’t important to us, or we’re distracted during the introduction and not paying attention to them, or if we don’t like them (which makes our ego will our conscious brain to disregard them and their name). It’s also possible we’re undergoing a period of memory impairment — as a result of sleep deprivation or mental health issues — that makes us forget people’s names.
However, why are names one of the most common things we forget about people, as opposed to faces? It’s because faces have a lot going for them — eyes, hair, teeth, nose, skin color, facial expressions that lend faces a unique set of cues by which they can be recognized. Names, on the other hand, are quite arbitrary, in the sense they hardly ever convey any more information than perhaps a vague sense of cultural origin. Because names don’t have any other cues attached to them, they often get stored in the brain’s short-term memory (that mostly registers things we hear), to be easily replaced by the next piece of information we encounter, according to neuroscientist Dean Burnett. In order for a name to graduate from short-term memory to long-term memory, it would either have to be rehearsed a bit (repeated in conversation, for example) or it would have to get dressed up in the person’s other rememberable attributes — their humor, hobbies or entertaining stories about their dating life.
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Even then, however, it’s difficult for some people to access names from their long-term memory, due to our brains being better at a process called recognition, than it is at another process called recall. Recognition lets us know we know the person, that we’re familiar with their existence and the memory of meeting them is stored somewhere in the brain. Recall is then being able to access the specifics of that memory, which gets harder the farther we move down the list of people we don’t have strong emotional connections with. These memories would require some jogging — the more stimulus we have that ties the person to the memory, the easier it would be for us to access it, which hopefully also includes their name.
In short, we’re not supposed to be able to tell every single person’s name we’ve ever met. It’s not a flaw; it’s just how people’s brains are wired. We need an emotional or personal connection with someone for our brains to register their existence long-term, and because names are one of the most arbitrary things about them, sadly they get axed first.
But the pressure we’ve put on ourselves, and on others, to be able to remember names has proven detrimental to people’s self-esteem and interpersonal relationships. A 2019 study shows people don’t take kindly to being forgotten by others, and in taking it as an insult, feel less close and less important to the person who forgot them. The possibility of causing someone this stress, in turn, can also make people who trying to remember a person’s name panic, further compromising their ability to attend to the task at hand.
In the end, however, it’s important we remember names’ arbitrariness is what makes them one of the least rememberable aspects of someone’s personality. They’re scarcely used when referring to someone, especially in person; they’re usually a dime a dozen, and they’re often the least interesting part of someone. A person who can’t remember your name is not necessarily slighting you, or disrespecting you; it’s possible their forgetfulness has more to do with the way their brain works than it has anything to do with how they see you. They could even have a mild type of aphasia — called anomic aphasia or dysnomia — which prevents them from retrieving nouns and verbs from their memory.
Most of us are never going to enjoy the privilege of keeping an assistant who can remember the names of all the people we know for us. It might be time we all acknowledge it’s a social slip every one of us has made at one point or another and move on. There are possibly thousands of things people remember about you, so what does it matter if a name is what escapes them?
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