In the dystopian science fiction film The Zero Theorem, Lucas Hedges plays a precocious programmer who does the most programmer thing imaginable: he refuses to remember people’s names and simply calls everyone “Bob” …and so should you. Here’s the case for not remembering names.
The Visual System
Awkwardness is enduring the absurd. The absurd silences in a conversation, the cringe in response to the absurdity of offering a high five to a fist bump, and who can forget the absurd stench of embarrassment you increasingly disperse each second you stand apprehensively, unable to recall someone’s name. However, isn’t the concept of names absurd in itself?
Humans, as many neurologists and psychologists claim, are visual creatures – creatures that are most responsive to visual stimuli. It is no doubt that abstraction, our species’ most cherished ability, although some grim philosophers condemn it as a tragic misstep in evolution, is compelling, but its efficacy comes nowhere close to the efficacy of visualization. No stimulus is richer in information.
Take, for example, the Pythagorean Theorem: what seems to be more informative, vivid and therefore easier to comprehend: the fact that the square of the longest side of a right-angled triangle is equal to the sum of squares of the other two sides, or this treat of a descriptive gif?
One virtue of our visual nature is our incredible ability to recognize faces. We are so unbelievably adept at recognizing faces that deliberately forgetting one seems indescribably difficult after it has been etched in our memory. This ability allowed our ancestors to distinguish between kin and stranger, native and intruder. Birds that are inept at recognizing faces fail to distinguish between selfish and altruistic or, at least, reciprocal birds, and often repeat the mistake of helping the former without getting anything in return.
What’s In a Name?
“The simple understanding that one thing can be another is at the root of all our doings.” Language, novelist Cormac McCarthy remarked, “crossed mountains and oceans as if they weren’t there.” Cormac was referring to the conduct of metaphors, but one can infer, more fundamentally, the conduct of symbolism. To use language is to symbolize, and to symbolize is to abstract.
Words are condensed expressions. How tedious and draining would it have been to describe myself as “the one who engages in literary composition” rather than simply as a “writer”. Similarly, grabbing someone’s attention by shouting “the dark male with a chiseled face, blue eyes and a long nose!” would be hysterically inefficient compared to simply shouting “Ted!”. To name or label is to condense the ravishing complexity of what we see into a succinct, distinct symbol – a word. Naming therefore drastically reduces our energy demands. It is obviously much more efficient.
However, the integration of a name with the mental image of the named requires communication between different regions of the brain. It is no wonder then why recalling names as you get older becomes harder: the links or connections grow gradually infirm. While recognizing a face is almost reflexive, remembering the name attached to it is not. It takes conscious effort to delve into our memory and grab hold of it. Also, because everyone is not named “Ted”, we must delve, perhaps into different pockets, each time we learn and wish to recall a new name.
Initially, we must rote-learn names just like we rote-learn the alphabet; the more there are, the harder the next one is to remember. This memory will remain ephemeral unless you strengthen it by accessing it repeatedly or wrapping it in an emotion. Memories rife with emotions are far more accessible than impassive, insipid facts. This is why remembering the name of a plant is more difficult than remembering the name of a beautiful woman you fell in love with at first sight. However, you’d remember the plant’s name if, while trekking, you ate it and almost died. The horror would never let you forget what it looked like nor what it was called.
However, isn’t the concept of naming therefore absurd? Why must we rote-learn so many names? It seems that even though names dramatically enhance mental efficiency and save our valuable memory, a considerable volume of this very memory is occupied by a list of names. Agreed, the decline in efficiency is marginal; the paradox of naming has worked in our favor and is not exacting enough to severely impair our mental functioning.
Still, why shouldn’t we strive for maximum efficiency? Why must we condone even this marginal decline? We can further increase our mental efficiency by choosing not to remember more than one name and using this single name to refer to every person we ever meet. The ability to recognize or identify, thanks to our visual system, would be unaffected.
Count the astonishing number of names you remember, whether in your contacts, on your friend list, those you follow and those who follow you, and imagine what you could do with the vacated — even if meager — memory that they occupy. So, the next time you stand apprehensively, unable to recall your colleague’s name, don’t be hesitant to just call her “Bob”.