Our brains are not designed to remember people’s names because they are not important. Names are arbitrary and don’t provide any inherent meaning to us. Instead, our brains are designed to remember things that are important or that have associations.
How many times have you found yourself being introduced to a new group of friends, perhaps at a bar or a party? It’s exciting to meet new people, and yet, within a few seconds of that first “Hello, nice to meet you!”, you’ve already forgotten the most important part of that exchange – the person’s name!
What follows is usually one of two things: 1) you can pretend like you haven’t forgotten, and may get away with it, at least until the next time you meet that person; or 2) you can admit that their name has fallen out of your brain almost immediately.
While it might be embarrassing to admit that to a brand-new acquaintance, don’t be too self-conscious, because there is a good chance they’ve also forgotten yours. In other words, you’re not alone.
The question is…. why does it seem so much harder to remember names than other things in life?
The simple answer is…. because names aren’t really that important…. but there’s a bit more to it than that.
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What’s In A Name?
While your name might be the most fundamental thing about you, and the information that you offer to someone before anything else, the use of first, middle and last names is more of a societal need than an inherent mental requirement. Essentially, our names contain very little information; it is a means of identifying, but unless you are a whiz when it comes to pure memory, that serves very little purpose in our brains.
Consider it in this way… over the course of your life, you may meet 100 people named Peter, 120 women named Mary, and 200 people with the last name Smith. By that very fact, the name “Peter”, “Mary” or “Smith” won’t possess any inherent meaning to you. The arbitrary designation of a person’s name doesn’t create associations in your brain that can help you with recall. If the first Peter you knew became your best friend, moved away to Colorado, where you visited him, and stood up in his wedding, and he made you the godfather of his first child, then the name “Peter” may have that immediate association with you.
Now, within that example, was the name itself important? Could he have been named Michael? Or Scott? Nothing about a name itself is a defining characteristic of a person, and it doesn’t immediately allow our brains to move that information into our long-term memory. First, it needs to pass through our short-term memory, which can be a problem in itself….
Short-Term Vs. Long-Term
Can you remember the last international vacation you took? Most people would respond with a definite, “Of course!”
Now, can you remember what you had for lunch last Tuesday? Most people would respond with a confused, “Of course not…. who does?”
This is the difference between your short-term and long-term memory. While you were on that 10-day trip to Greece, there was a constant influx of information that your brain was storing and linking into memories. Thoughts of your flight lead to the hotels and the tours you went on, the wines you tried with those new friends, who you still keep in touch with today, because they also have friends from your hometown…
That international vacation has thousands of neural pathways and connections that have helped it become a part of your long-term memory. Furthermore, the associative pathways of the brain allow certain ideas or people to trigger memories you didn’t even know you still possessed.
On the other hand, the unremarkable lunch you had at your kitchen table two weeks ago had no real impact on your life. You ate alone, it wasn’t a fancy or unique meal, and no new information or experiences were had. Your brain will store the memory of that meal for a very short time, and unless you regularly revisit it, or connect it to other pieces of information and memories, it will disappear. The short-term memory is basically the filter by which your brain declutters your memory and only holds onto the things you will need in the future.
What’s Your Name Again?
In a social setting, when you are meeting a bunch of people all at once, it is very easy to be self-conscious, and to focus on howyou are presenting yourself. Oftentimes, this can mean ignoring what the person is saying – even the first words out of their mouth (“Hi, I’m _____”). This problem is exacerbated if you aren’t genuinely interested in getting to know that person, or remembering them beyond the pleasantry of a social event. Some people are more socially oriented, and sincerely engage in conversations with strangers, while other people are less inclined to remember people (let alone their name) for more than a few minutes, simply out of disinterest.
Names are meaningless pieces of information, like the name of a folder on your computer that contains dozens of potentially important files. Once you accessed those files, and the information they contained, then the folder name would be more important to you, and thus easier to remember. While our brains may be the ultimate supercomputer, they don’t operate in the same way as our PCs.
Our minds tend to react better to visual stimuli, like someone’s face, or data stimuli that is associative, such as the person’s profession, connection to the host of the party or event, or a common interest that you share. Relevant information that links to other things you already know is the basis of forming neural pathways and strengthening memory. A name, whether it is Steve, Desmond, Michelle, Gabriella or Plain Jane, doesn’t provide an immediate link that our brains deem worthwhile.
That being said, there are many different techniques that can help you get better at remembering people’s names, and avoiding that awkward question, “I’m so sorry, but what was your name again?” Those life hacks for improving your memory, however, will have to wait for a future article!