Why do I have such a poor memory for names?

07 October 2012


Brain cartoon




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, it's 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 you're 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 that's 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 somebody's name. Back to Bernhard.

Bernhard: Now with names, given that they are arbitrary labels, it's 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 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 'A'. You'll see that this very act of semantic elaboration will make Andrew's name more memorable to you. It's just like tying a knot in your handkerchief.

Hannah: There is also the commonly used trick of conjuring up an image of the person you've 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 blacksmith's 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, we're busily engaged in social etiquette and so sometimes, that's why it's tricky to concurrently take in the name and store it to memory...


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