Why do we forget other people’s names? Our brain is to blame!

Why do we forget other people’s names? Our brain is to blame!
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You go to a party where you meet new people. You spend a nice time with them, you talk, you dance, you joke, but in place of their names in your head a black hole is boring. You simply do not remember them.

More than 80% of people have trouble remembering names, especially new people they meet. There is nothing strange about this. This happens for several reasons, all explained by neuroscience and psychology – it is closely related to cognitive processes, the way the brain stores and processes information, and the emotional relationship to one person or another. Scientists have found that this is how the brain fights to retain important information and exclude incidental ones, and it is especially common for us to forget the names (and surnames) of those who do not seem interesting to us.

How does the brain accumulate information?

The human ability to remember is truly amazing, but it depends on how many associations a particular piece of information brings up in us, not on how much we want to retain it. Data in the brain is not gathered like in an archive into separate folders in labeled drawers. It does not have a compartment headed “names.” Rather, we think associatively, based on patterns of related information. When we get to know a person, everything we learn about that person goes into our memory as related data.

For example, imagine that you meet a man, Tom, who loves to fish and sells cars, although he would rather sell fishing tackle instead. By remembering one of these specific pieces of information, namely “he sells cars,” you can complete the chain of associations: “he sells machines, but he wants to quit that job” -> “wants to quit his job and sell fishing tackle” -> “he wants to sell fishing tackle because he loves fishing” etc. The only problem is that your new acquaintance’s name doesn’t fit into the whole picture – it’s conventional information that you haven’t connected to the others you’ve obtained in the conversation. And this is where the Baker/Baker paradox enters the scene.

The Baker/Baker Paradox

Researchers conducted a study in which volunteers were divided into two groups. Each was given a specific task – the first had to remember that the name of the man in the photograph was Baker, and the second had to remember that he was a baker by profession (also “baker” in English). After 2 weeks, the volunteers were asked again about the man in the photo. All the people in the second group remembered the man’s name without any mistakes, while only one person from the first group remembered the man’s name. Why did this happen?

This very phenomenon is called the baker/Baker paradox. The man’s name carried no specific information that the brain could associate with anything. The profession of baker, on the other hand, automatically evoked associations with baking, the smell of fresh bread, a man in a baker’s outfit, or getting up early, which allowed this information to be entered into a whole network of associations. The same thing happens when learning the names of new people. Unless they are accompanied by specific associations, this is seemingly useless and impossible information for the brain to match. However, this is not the only paradox or cognitive effect we experience in this situation.

The next-in-line effect

When meeting people for the first time, many of us focus on self-presentation. In psychology, this is called the next-in-line effect: when, instead of looking at and listening to the other person when you first meet them, your brain begins to focus on what you will need to say and how best to do it.

In an experiment conducted at Texas Christian University, volunteers in a small group were asked to introduce themselves in a specific order. The researchers then tested what information each participant remembered about the others. They found that they were able to tell exactly about each person in the group except for the one who appeared right in front of them. What’s more, most of the volunteers couldn’t remember not only that person’s name, but also any other information about them.

The laws of working memory

It is also important to remember that we all have both long-term and short-term memory. The latter is often referred to as working memory, meaning that it contains data that we need here and now but don’t know if it will be useful in the future. Experiments show that unless this information is repeated several times, it almost certainly won’t be stored in our memory. So if we learn someone’s name but don’t repeat it again later and don’t interact with that person, the brain will be less likely to store that information because it won’t seem useful to it.

Emotional Relation

Richard Harris, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, discovered that the brain’s ability to remember names is affected not by the functionality of the memory, but rather by the level of interest in the object that bears that name. In the simplest terms, if a person is important or interesting to us, or some other strong emotion (anger or fear) is associated with them, our brain will remember their name more easily. For example, if at a party a boy meets two girls and he likes one of them, it is her name that he is most likely to remember, while the other will remain with the patch of “her friend”. Often in our memory for many years remain the names of first loves from school years, teachers who aroused our fear, friends with whom we experienced something unusual or unique.

How to remember names – a few tips

Although the problem with remembering names is not unusual, it certainly does not make life easier and, unfortunately, can be the cause of misunderstandings and awkwardness. So how to deal with it?

One of the main strategies to improve memorization is, of course, repetition. Applications such as Memrise are built on this principle, forcing users to continually return to information already written down and thus helping to consolidate it, while improving memory in general. When you meet a new person, try to address them by name so that your brain receives the same information several times and moves it from the working realm to the permanent one.

Another way is to use visual associations. Since the brain works on the principle of association network, you need to make sure that the name of the newly met person fits into this network. For example, you can connect this person with someone famous with the same name, with your relative or friend. It is also helpful to remember names in a broader context: Kasia with the tall blonde hair, Bartek with the tattoo on his neck, Piotrek with the thick red beard, and so on.

When getting to know someone, it is a good idea to ask them a question, to find out more about them. Additional information will allow you to spend more time remembering the name and associations around it, and the brain forced to concentrate more will understand that this is really important information.

Main photo: Andrea Piacquadio/pexels.com

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