How often has this happened to you: you meet a person, have a pleasant conversation with them, and five minutes afterwards you can’t remember their name? Before you start with the face-palming, consider this: you’re not alone. Humans are often terrible at remembering names.
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But I remember faces really well, you say. Well, that may be true. In fact it probably IS true: there’s a considerable region of the brain called the Fusiform Face Area devoted entirely to facial recognition. Some people even have a weakness in this region that makes them face-blind…and this weakness is often hereditary, meaning whole families are face-blind. The vast majority of humans, however, have a well-trained, rather complex Fusiform Face Area specifically designed for recognizing faces.
So why can’t I remember names? Well, like most everything involving neuroscience, it’s complicated…but basically, because everything about a name, including social introductions, is engineered to make us forget rather than remember them.
For starters, there’s the baker-Baker paradox. If someone tells you they are a baker, you associate a lot of ideas you’ve already formed: the smell of bread baking, perhaps your favorite neighborhood bakery, a cookie recipe passed down your family through generations, and the like. The likelihood that you’ll remember that this person is a baker is extremely high because you automatically create these associations. Now, if someone tells you their name is Baker, you’re much more likely to forget it. Names are arbitrary: they don’t come with associations of any kind or tell you anything important about that person, so you’re more likely to forget them. Now if someone named Baker tells you they are a baker, it’ll probably all stick like glue. A farmer named Baker? Not so much.
That names are arbitrary makes for a lot of social awkwardness, since we give names so much power. Forgetting someone’s name is perceived as an insult, especially if you’ve met them more than once. Regardless of the social importance of names, our brains aren’t hardwired to remember them. As we’re usually introducing ourselves while meeting someone new, we often experience the next-in-line effect, which further bungles our short-term memory’s functions. The next-in-line effect shows that when you’re being introduced to someone you are primarily focusing on introducing yourself. In doing so, you become preoccupied with your own introduction instead of the person introducing themselves to you. And their name.
And finally, it is true that often we just don’t really care about what someone’s name is. Regardless of the social stigma attached, names are really quite irrelevant. They don’t tell us anything about the person we’re talking to; they have nothing to do with their opinions or ideas or personalities or careers or anything otherwise important to us, so we tend to mentally de-prioritize them. Our brains are hard-wired to, it would seem, work against us.
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There are, of course, some things you can do to remember a person’s name. Here are a few of them:
-Pay attention. Really listen when someone is introducing themselves instead of focusing on your own introduction.
-Use the person’s name as quickly as possible and repeat it often.
-Build associations with their name. For example, if Jennifer is from Alaska you can picture her standing in a snowy place with a fur coat (for JenniFUR).
-Use wordplay, mnemonic devices and rhymes.
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-Have the person introducing themselves spell their name for you. This helps you pay better attention and gives you one more reference to their name.
-And the classic, introduce someone you know very well to them. This is my personal favorite, and I use it all the time.