After getting out of a six-year relationship, Steve*, 28, began seeing a new woman. They were a few weeks into the relationship when it happened: "I called my most recent ex-girlfriend, Nicole, my ex-ex-girlfriend, Laura," he tells Broadly. "The whole room just stopped."
It's a humiliating mistake many of us have made, and according to Dr. Jim Pfaus, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Concordia University who studies cognition during sex, we shouldn't feel too bad about it. It's simply how the brain works, he says, citing Pavlovian rules that state incoming sensory information cues will recall of a previous emotional state. "When you're in a state of euphoria, you conjure up things that remind you of other things, because you're in a state that has happened before," he explains.
Other research suggests that activity falls in certain parts of the brain during sex. For women, as Gert Holstege of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands succinctly put it in an interview with the New Scientist, "At the moment of orgasm, women do not have any emotional feelings." (It's more difficult to study the effects of orgasm on men's brains, according to the New Scientist article, because the brain scanners used in this experiment measure activity over two minutes, and "in men it is all over in a few seconds.") Anecdotally, this seems to be the case for some: Beca, a 29-year-old writer, says she that her nomenclatural mix-ups normally take place "in the midst of a wild orgasm, so losing my mind."
As horrific as it may feel to have your partner call you the wrong name in bad, Pfaus says, it's not necessarily a bad sign; rather, it's often an indication you're conjuring a closeness that is akin to previous intimacy. "Let's assume the person had a very special former lover who made him or her feel a certain thrill. Those sexual thrills, quality of orgasms, and feelings of closeness were associated with that person and his or her name," he explains.
A study conducted earlier this year by Duke University finds that misnaming those close to us is a "widespread phenomenon" and that it tends to involve conflating two individuals within the same semantic category—meaning that we'll confuse our siblings for other siblings, friends for other friends, and romantic partners for other romantic partners. And, while phonetics may come into account (which is why it's dangerous to go from banging a Laura to a Lindsay), the study found that "overall, the misnaming of familiar individuals is driven by the relationship between the misnamer, misnamed, and named." These findings seem to confirm what Pfaus states about mixing up former lovers with current ones, and explains why one is more likely to call their Tinder date by the name of their college boyfriend rather than, say, their mom.
Those sexual thrills, quality of orgasms, and feelings of closeness were associated with that person and his or her name.
Whatever the reason behind misnaming—sex-induced fugue state, standard confusion among similar semantic categories, whatever—your reaction to the utterance of an incorrect name is arguably more telling than the act itself. According to Pfaus, the only people who will be upset over this type of slip-up are those who "buy into the jealous thing about ownership." He adds that the best way to deal with this type of situation and to communicate clearly: "Your erection can wait," Pfaus emphasizes. "Stop what you're doing and talk about it, try to figure out a way to give it a happy ending." In Steve's case, this tactic was particularly effective. "Nicole was weirdly sympathetic," he says. "She admitted that she had almost done it to me the other day, which made me feel better."
For those who don't buy into the jealous thing about ownership, such mistakes can even be fun. When Raul* accidentally said his ex's name in bed, for instance, his new partner found it a turn-on. "I had no idea, but this whole time, my partner had been fantasizing about how I used to fuck my exes," he says. "She took what I thought was a total accident as intentional and told me: 'Yes, tell me how you used to fuck her!'"
If all else fails, you can at least console yourself by knowing things could be worse: In the Duke study, 42 instances of misnaming involved someone using their pet's name—in most cases a dog's—in place of a loved one's. Though 41 of those cases involved a family member, you can take comfort in knowing you're probably better off than that one last person.
* Name has been changed