Why It's So Hard to Remember a New Person's Name

The human brain is capable of great things, just not this.

by Ruchira Sharma
27 June 2017, 8:00am

The human brain is a magical thing, capable of memorising multiple languages and working out how to build mile-high buildings that don't fall over. So it's fairly bizarre that our most complex organ is also completely incapable of retaining information as basic as a name. Why is it that we can invent planes – 450-ton hunks of machinery that fly through the air – but can't remember someone's name when they tell us at a party?

Dr Maria Wimber is a cognitive neuroscientist who specialises in long-term memory and forgetting, so seemed like the right person to ask.

VICE: So why can't we remember names?
Dr Maria Wimber: I would say, based on memory research, that names are really random information. Our brains generally like really meaningful information, and it's much easier to remember something meaningful than something arbitrary, like a name. So if you think of an example, like the last party you went to, and a person you talked to there, you probably a week later roughly remember what their face looked like, that they were a graphic designer, that you spoke a lot about music – so all the meaningful things. But a name is just an arbitrary combination of syllables; it doesn't tell us much about what this person is like, what kinds of things they do. So it's about meaningful information to our brain.

How do you define what information is meaningful and what's not?
Our brains remember over a lifetime, so by 30 years old your brain would have realised it might be really important whether somebody is laughing or not, or has a friendly face or not. That is important [information that helps you] judge that person and pre-judge whether they are going to kill you or have a nice chat with you. But a name – you know, the brain has probably just learned over 20 years that a name isn't very useful information.

Is anyone particularly good at remembering names?
Some people say they're better at visual information, others spoken information. But everyone, when you say you're a memory scientist, says they're really bad at remembering people's names, so it seems to be a global phenomenon. It's something everyone is complaining about.

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Does anyone ever ask you how to be better at remembering names?
Yeah, I get that a lot actually, so I have a few responses. Apart from the whole meaningful thing, one reason that we don't remember names is that often we don't pay attention to them in the first place. So if you're really keen on remembering people's names, I'd say the first step is properly paying attention. Maybe ask a question – you know, if it's a very unusual name you might ask, "How do you spell that?" or, "Where does it come from?" Another way is to repeat it immediately, so if you meet a graphics designer called Kate, you don't say "Hi"" but, "Nice to meet you, Kate," so you've already repeated it for yourself and you go on repeating it during the conversation.

Why do we forget in general?
The first thing I always clarify when people ask me about forgetting – because everyone is always complaining about forgetting and saying that their memory really isn't good – but you just have to say out loud that our memory is actually amazing. If you think about how much information accumulates over our lifetime, it's quite surprising that we can remember anything at all. We're constantly overriding it with information, and the research I and many other colleagues have found is that this is a really useful thing, because a lot of information that we see from day to day will never become relevant again. Forgetting is really useful, as most of the information you're never going to need again – or imagine if you get a new pin for your bank account, it's really good to forget the old one otherwise it'll keep popping up in your mind when you want to remember the new one. So it's quite useful to get rid of outdated or useless information.

What about the theory that we need to make space to remember new things?
I know people have talked about something called the Homer Simpson effect – when you put a new thing into your brain and it pushes something else out. It's not true that the brain has a limited storage capacity, per se; I think it just needs to get organised all the time. It's a bit like a storage space or attic in your home, where the more information you put in there the harder it becomes to find something, but if you're very organised and have your little niche where you store all your photographs, all your old furniture, it's still possible to retrieve stuff very easily, even if your brain – or your attic – is very full. It's not so much a matter of if it can be stored at all, as I don't think we ever reach that limit; it's more about keeping organised.

Thanks, Maria.


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