“You know that girl you went to school with?”
“Can you narrow it down?”
“You know, the tall girl. Dark blond hair but I think she was dyeing it, between you and me. She used to live in the street next to us before her parents divorced and her mother moved into the apartment that the Jones family lived in before they moved to Australia. Her sister was friends with your cousin before she got pregnant with that boy from town — that was a bit of a scandal. Always wore a red coat but it didn’t really suit her. You know who I mean?”
“What’s her name?”
I’ve had countless conversations like this, with my mother, gran, or other family members. Clearly, there’s nothing wrong with their memory or grasp of detail; they can provide personal data about someone that would put a Wikipedia page to shame. But so many people say they struggle with names, even when they’re looking directly at the person whose name they’re trying to recall. I’ve done this myself. It makes for a very awkward wedding ceremony.
Why does this happen? Why can we recognize someone’s face but not their name? Surely both are equally valid ways of identifying someone? We need to delve a bit deeper into how human memory works to grasp what’s really going on.
Firstly, faces are very informative. Expressions, eye contact, mouth movements, these are all fundamental ways humans communicate. Facial features also reveal a lot about a person: eye color, hair color, bone structure, teeth arrangement; all things that can be used to recognize a person. So much so that the human brain has seemingly evolved several features to aid and enhance facial recognition and processing, such as pattern recognition and a general predisposition to pick out faces in random images.
Compared to all this, what does someone’s name have to offer? Potentially some clues as to their background or cultural origin, but in general it’s just a couple of words, a sequence of arbitrary syllables, a brief series of noises that you’re informed belong to a specific face. But so what?
As it turns out, for a random piece of conscious information to go from short-term memory to long-term memory, it usually has to be repeated and rehearsed. However, you can sometimes skip this step, particularly if the information is attached to something deeply important or stimulating, meaning an episodic memory is formed. If you meet someone and they’re the most beautiful person you’ve ever seen and you fall instantly in love, you’d be whispering the object of your affection’s name to yourself for weeks.
This doesn’t usually happen when you meet someone (thankfully), so if you wish to learn someone’s name, the only guaranteed way to remember it is to rehearse it while it’s still in your short-term memory. The trouble is, this approach takes time and uses mental resources.
This means that something you’re thinking about can be easily overwritten or replaced by the next thing you encounter and have to process. When you first meet someone, it’s extremely rare for them to tell you their name and nothing else.
You’re invariably going to be involved in a conversation about where you’re from, what you do for work, hobbies, what they arrested you for, that sort of thing. Social etiquette insists we exchange pleasantries on first meeting (even if we’re not really interested), but every pleasantry we engage in with a person increases the odds of the person’s name being pushed out of short-term memory before we can encode it.
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