forgetting people's names
midlife,  Science

The curse of forgetting people’s names

There are some people in this world who can remember the name of every person they ever meet, I am not one of them. In fact, I am the complete opposite. I have a knack for forgetting people’s names within seconds of meeting them, and even after years of knowing them.

My mind seems incapable of storing humankind’s primary identifiers or, as seems to be increasingly the case, recalling those few I do remember at the exact moment they are required. This, unsurprisingly, leads to awkwardness on a daily level.

In social situations I have often found myself coming face to face with someone who clearly remembers me:

“Tim, Tim, Tim. There you are. Good to see you. How are you Timster, my old pal?”

While I stare blankly back at a face I vaguely recognise, but to which I cannot put a single syllable;

“Great, thanks….pal. You?”

And I will find myself engrossed in a half hour conversation with this nameless face, vocalising words while my brain frantically searches its database for any hint of recognition. On most occasions, I will draw a complete blank, until my wife appears with a casual; “Hi Geoff, good to see you,” and I can breathe again.

Work awkwardness

The same happens at work, although the awkwardness levels can increase here significantly. Having worked in the same geographically dispersed organisation for nine years, there is a realistic expectation that I will know everyone. However, whenever we come together from around the country for a meeting, I find myself sat on tables with colleagues I have known for the best part of a decade, still struggling to remember whether they’re Alan from the Cumbria office or John from West Sussex.

When I’m then asked to facilitate a group discussion, the awkwardness ramps up once again as I find yourself staring intently at people, willing them to speak, rather than using their names. A great deal of umming, ahhing and hand gesturing will usually see me scraping through, but it’s not until others start using the names of those in the group that I can start to relax.

This same awkwardness applies with the neighbours in our street. Again, we have lived in the same street and have had the same neighbours for 10 years, most of whom we were introduced to within days of moving in. So I should know their names, but of course I don’t and now it’s far too awkward to ask.

So instead, we have inane conversations about the weather and bin collections, avoiding the need for any name use. However, the key difference here is that I suspect most of them don’t know my name either and are probably feeling equally as awkward.

In stark contrast to my memory inadequacies, there is thankfully a subset of people on this planet who are blessed with the enviable ability to remember countless names, pairing faces with monikers in a split second and even recalling names with faces that have changed hugely over years:


Back to school

I have so much admiration for the teaching community, not only for their ability to manage 30 children in one go, but also for their ability to name every child in their school.

While I have never been a teacher, I have been a Beaver leader. Back then, two friends and I were responsible for a pack of 6-8 year-old children and, on a weekly basis, would organise a range of scouting activities for them to take part in. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but was always awful at remembering the children’s names.

At one point there were three James’ in our pack, so to make life easier I called most of the boys James, safe in the knowledge that I had about a one in six chance of getting their name right. On a regular night though, I would call at least one child by the wrong name – usually while shouting across a field or telling them to avoid some impending danger.

Teachers, however, have no issues at all with large groups of children. Is name recollection taught during teacher training? Is there something in the genetic makeup of teachers that gives them this super power?

The science of name recall

A trawl of Google, in an attempt to add some scientific weight to this post, made for interesting reading. It transpires that teachers may actually be better at name recall, not because they are genetically predisposed to it, but because their roles mean they have to train certain parts of their brain to be better at remembering names. The rest of us, meanwhile, presumably just let that part of our brains sit on the sofa watching Netflix.

Research suggests that several brain regions are involved in the process of remembering names, including the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex, and temporal lobe. These regions work together to form and retrieve memories. Or, at least, they’re meant to.

Individual differences in the size and activity of these brain regions may, apparently, contribute to differences in name recall abilities. For example, studies have shown that individuals with a larger hippocampus tend to have better memory function.

I can only assume, therefore, that my hippocampus is more ‘otter’ than ‘hippo’ on the aquatic mammal scale of brain regions. My children’s teachers, meanwhile, presumably have gigantic hippocampi, that dwarf mine in comparison.

But is it too late to do anything about it? Could I, if I wanted to, improve my name recall abilities?

Brain training

Research has shown that people can improve their name recall abilities with practice and the use of mnemonic techniques, such as visualisation and association.

Upon hearing this, I first had to look up what ‘mnemonic’ meant – it refers to learning techniques that involve systems or patterns – and then Googled what such techniques might actually involve. Essentially, it all sounds like a lot of hard work:

1. Repetition: One of the simplest techniques commonly recommended is to repeat the name of the person several times when you first hear it. Suggestions include using the name in a sentence or asking a follow-up question using the name of the person you’ve just been introduced to. In practice, though, there is a chance that this will make you sound like a serial killer:

“Hello, nice to meet you, I’m Brian?”

“Hi, Brian. How are you Brian? Isn’t this a nice event Brian? How did you get here Brian? Where’s the toilet Brian?”

2. Association: Associating the person’s name with something that you already know or with a characteristic of the person can help you remember their name better.

“Hello, nice to meet you, I’m Brian?”

[Brian…ok….logged. Now, what is it about Brian that I can associate with him? Well, his body odour is pretty noticeable. So, from now on he will forever be ‘BO Brian’]

3. Visualisation: Visualising the person’s name can also help you remember it better. Try to create a mental image of the name, such as writing it in your mind or picturing the letters of the name forming an image.

“Hello, nice to meet you, I’m Brian?”

[Brian, basically just the word ‘Brain’ rearranged a bit, so whenever I look at you now Brian, I will see only a brain]

4. Mnemonic devices: You can create an acronym using the letters of the person’s name, or create a rhyme or phrase that relates to their name.

“Hello, nice to meet you, I’m Brian?”

[There once was man called Brian,
who was unfortunately eaten by a lion….

Finally, further research has also suggested that ‘ample and deep sleep’ can help to improve name recall. So, if it all becomes too much, we can at least justifiably escape by going to bed.

Is it possible?

Will any of these techniques ultimately help me to remember people’s names? I’m prepared to give them a go, but I doubt it. I just think that my brain isn’t very good at recalling people’s names if I don’t interact with them on at least a daily basis.

A far easier solution would be for humankind to adopt name tags in daily life, or to make re-introductions standard practice for anyone you’ve previously met, but perhaps not had much to do with for a couple of years.

Then, of course, once we have got over the hurdle of names, we can move on to the challenge of birthdays and memorable dates.

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