Question of the Week

Why do I have such a poor memory for names?

Sun, 7th Oct 2012

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David Anderson asked:



I am a great fan of your program and listen regularly to your podcasts when travelling.


I have a terrible memory for names, to the point where I can be introduced to someone and have forgotten their name a few moments later. Is there an explanation?







We put this to Dr Dr Bernhard Staresina, from the MRC Brain Science and Cognition Unit in Cambridge...

Bernhard:  My name is Dr Bernhard Staresina and I investigate the mechanisms of human memory at the MRC Cognition Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge.  Names are quite arbitrary and abstract labels.  So, itís very challenging to link a person and a name in any meaningful way.  This is a problem because we know from research that new information is much better learned if it can be integrated into a pre-existing knowledge, also known as schema.  For example, if youíre an expert in wine and you're introduced to a new bottle of wine, it would be easier for you to remember say, the name and vintage of the wine than for a person who knows little about wines.  And this is simply because you will automatically integrate a new wine into your internal wine database and make crosslinks to other wines you know.  This act of embedding information to an existing schema is called semantic elaboration and thatís known to greatly boost our ability to remember new information.

Hannah::  And where is this semantic elaboration happening?  The prefrontal cortex just behind your forehead acts as director, drawing on information from across your brain.  So, can we use this knowledge to help us remember somebodyís name.  Back to Bernhard.

Bernhard:  Now with names, given that they are arbitrary labels, itís much more difficult to use the semantic elaboration.  That said, one effective strategy to make names more memorable is to try somehow make sense of them.  For instance, if you're at a party and the (c) [[User:Nevit" alt="Crystal mind" />first person you meet is called Andrew, you could mentally emphasise the fact that he was the very first person you met at the party then make a crosslink to the alphabet or the first entries letter ĎAí.  You'll see that this very act of semantic elaboration will make Andrewís name more memorable to you.  Itís just like tying a knot in your handkerchief.

Hannah:  There is also the commonly used trick of conjuring up an image of the person youíve just met in order to remember their name.  Again, activating the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus using semantic elaboration to get the memory to stick.  So for example, when I first met Chris, I imagined him naked, holding a big microphone in one hand, and on the other hand a blacksmithís anvil.  I brand-stamped his name across his naked chest and his name stuck.  But why is it that we need to come up with such devices in order to remember what people are called?  As well as names being arbitrary, when we first meet someone, weíre busily engaged in social etiquette and so sometimes, thatís why itís tricky to concurrently take in the name and store it to memory.


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memory-for-names is poorer than memory-for-faces, as the latter is hardwired in the brain,
(memory-for-names is a later addon).

Hence the common experience of recognizing someones face, but not being able to remember their name.

There are tricks to help remember names, e.g. visualization ...

RD, Sun, 1st Apr 2012

The tricks to remember names sort of illiustrate the problem remembering them in the first place. They don't seem connected to the person in any meaningful way, and lots of other people also have that name. But one thing I've noticed is  after years of living in a big city where I'd meet lots of people I knew I'd probably never see again, I got worse at remembering names, and when I moved to a small town, I really had to really force myself to pay attention. cheryl j, Wed, 18th Apr 2012

And it's not just people's names, it's nouns in general: doodad, doohickey, gadget, gizmo, thingamabob, thingamajig, whatchamacallit, whatshisname, whosie-whatsit, widget, etc. We don't have nearly as much trouble remembering an action (verb), characteristic (adjective), and other parts of speech. Lmnre, Fri, 20th Apr 2012

I wonder if it could have something to do with how we learn a language. 

If you watch a 4-5 yr old, they pick up new words very rapidly.  Tell them a new word, and it is their favorite word for a day, and they never forget it.  Many of them are also extremely good at learning names of people.

However, as we age, we no longer need to learn the basic language, and thus the language becomes crystallized, or less dynamic.  And, with this crystallization of language, we not only loose the ability to rapidly learn new languages and grammar, but also loose the ability to learn new names of people, places, and things.

Also, keep in mind that while the word Giraffe may be very specific to one classification of animals, a name like Bob might be used to identify many very different individuals. CliffordK, Sun, 22nd Apr 2012

My first visit to this site, and I'm intrigued. I do have a theory to why modern common names tends to give us trouble.

First though, I want to get anyone who reads this on the same page as me.

Words are--and names are definitely also words--...are not actually anything tangible. That is, words are not objects in themselves, but representations of a thought, or idea, or an object.

When one says the word 'lake' for example, the word in itself is not what is being communicated. What we are doing is communicating the idea of a lake. The same can be said with names. When one says the name William, the name isn't what is being communicated, rather, the idea of William is.

Simple enough, right? This doesn't answer the question though.

Now, in modern language, we focus more on verbs, instead of nouns. Though, even the Romans held verbs of higher importance than nouns. In both Latin and English we see verbs take many forms and modify the idea we're trying to convey in a huge way.

Example: "to swim" ; 'will swim', 'is swimming', 'had swam', etc.

Nouns only really have a singular or plural tense, and the idea doesn't change all that substantially. Names are nouns, and names represent a person or people.

Example: "I'm walking to the store to buy an apple." and "I walked to the store to buy apples." -> The verb is what caused the major shift in the idea I communicated.

'So what the heck is this guy on about?' You might have thought to yourself by now. Well... It's my personal theory that remembering verbs is much easier than remembering nouns simply because of the dramatic effect they have on our inner visualization.

Native Americans did things a lot differently linguistically than we do today. They placed even littler value on nouns, evidenced by their lack of the plural tense in most cases. (Kind of like "fish" in English.)

It's also believed that the names they used tended to be in the verb+noun style. (eg. 'Dancing Wolf' or 'Sitting Bear')

So if I introduce myself to you at a funeral and tell you my name is "Kevin Brown." Do you think you would remember my name if we bumped into each other a couple weeks later at the supermarket? Not likely.

Now, if you were introduced to a woman who went by "Toothless Debby" at the funeral, and you bumped into her a few weeks later, I would think you would remember her name, instantly.

My theory expanded is that adding an adjective to a name not only makes it more unique and personal, but also increases the effectiveness of memorizing the name.

Perhaps mentally appending an adjective to everyone you meet, is a good strategy for memorizing names?

Thankyou much,
Hydranix Hydranix, Mon, 8th Oct 2012

As a lowly engineer I won't attempt to offer a scientific theory. But I can suggest a solution for an improvement: Training 8D

I had quite a few problems remembering names myself until I started to train remebering names. Now, when I have a chat withsomeone I will repeat his/her name a couple of times within the conversation. And when I meet him/her again I will say "Servus* David" instead of just "Servus". If I don't remember the name, I will just ask. For the first couple of occasions, this is completely OK. Yet I found I need to ask less and less, since I started repeating the names.

Greetings => Georg

*) "Servus" due to me being German and living close to the Austrian border ;) espressionant, Mon, 8th Oct 2012

I would like to add one thought. Possibly the whole thing is a self fulfilling prophecy. We feel awkward if we can't remember a name. So name-remebering is tied to something awkward. And memory likes to store nice things only (at least mine) I had never problems remembering the horsepower of a sportscar or its name. Even if that consists of numbers mainly...

Georg espressionant, Tue, 9th Oct 2012

Most of the words you know were learned when you little, when your brain was biologically primed for learning language. The name you learned last week wasn't. That isnt the entire explanation of course, but I know that I can remember the names of kids in my second grade class better than a lot of people I went to university with or met recently. And the meaning of words, as Dr Staresina explained above is associated with some kind of meaningful context,where as whether or not a person is named Amy or Sue seems arbitrary. And with words often there are clues to meaning from words that have a similar derivations. I was reading this book about the history of Islam and it was frustrating trying to remember any of the terms (or names) used because the words just didnt sound like anything familiar in English.
cheryl j, Sat, 13th Oct 2012

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