We are at a party. Smiling, happy people greet us by name all night. Leaning into my ear, my husband hisses: " Oh God, what's her name? Sue? Pat? Lil? I hate this. Why can't I remember anybody's name? ARRGGGHHHHH!"
Drawing a mental blank on names happens to just about everyone, say psycholinguists, who study the brain's role in the speech process. It's an aggravating glitch that worsens with age, as we amass more names to remember. Theories abound about why, but most researchers agree that recalling names is tough because names have no semantic meaning and because we often hear them only once--at the moment of introduction, precisely when our brain is overloaded with details of first impressions and our responses.
Word meaning is critical to our memories, which are a bit like libraries, creating order out of informational chaos by cataloguing words linked to a semantic network.
"Let's say you meet a Bill," says Jean Berko Gleason, a psycholinguist at Boston University. "The world is full of Bills. It isn't as if all Bills are tall or all Bills are nice. There is nothing associated with the name Bill that helps you remember it." Names of pets, on the other hand, are easier to recall because they often offer descriptive associative clues: Fluffy, Fang, Tripod.
Deborah M. Burke, professor of psychology at Pomona College who specializes in memory and aging, says exceptions are rare. "The only time first names have meaning is if a really ditzy woman is named Bunny or a big guy is named Spike." (And you know how often that happens).
Other researchers say the retrieval problem has to do with hearing names only once or twice. Lack of regular use can inspire a tip-of-the-tongue, that powerful feeling of knowing you know the name / word, but where often only its first and last letters, and its number of syllables come to you. Some psycholinguists suggest that names are more arduous to retrieve simply because they were never really learned and encoded in the brain initially. Elaborations on that theory include what is described as a divided attention problem, a case of stimulus overload upon introduction to a person: Other salient details supersede less imposing details like names. (Like how interesting or alluring the person is.)
"There have been studies following people as they make mistakes about names, not remembering the name or remembering it wrong, but what never happens is recalling the name, without any of the [biographical] information that identifies a person," says Burke, who co-edited "Memory for Proper Names" (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1993), a book of research on the subject. "You never say 'That is George Johnson and I don't know what he does for a living.' "
Personal information, unlike names, leaves a more potent impression, linking other information to it in a kind of associative chain. First names may be more difficult because they come from a smaller pool and are more repetitive than last names. Occupations, like that of a baker, conjure up rich imagery: a baker's hat, arms covered in white flour, kneading dough and loaves baking. "But if the person's name is Mr. Baker," says Burke, "it has no meaning of its own unless you think of it as an English name."
Memories are more successful at recognition than recall, says psychology professor Harry P. Bahrick at Ohio Wesleyan University, who studied 500 people's ability to remember high school classmates.
"The principle finding was that memory holds up at levels of almost 90% correct up to 35 years after high school graduation, when your brain starts rotting out in the mid-50s," says Bahrick, who asked his study subjects to recall and write down as many names of their classmates as they could in 15 minutes. For every two minutes, after that point, people recalled one name a minute. "Even students from a graduating class 50 years back were able to select most of the names and match them up to photographs. But with free recall, people got about 53 names right of [their entire graduating class of 90 to 1,000] immediately after graduating from high school. They got about half that amount 20 years later."
Bahrick says such powerful memory "recognition" is fairly permanent in students who have spent four years seeing faces and repeating their corresponding names. But short-term memory, where you have less than 10 minutes to learn something (the time spent on party chatter or moments in a business meeting) makes such name recall and recognition difficult.
Often it is simply a matter of inattention. Researchers say that our attention can be divvied up among five to nine things at once and that it is rarely focused on names in the rush of stimuli that accompanies first introductions.
That's what happens to Morton Gernsbacher, who teaches psycholinguistics at University of Wisconsin at Madison, when a tsunami of student names envelop her each semester. To survive, she uses rhyming mnemonics. But a student whose first name was Vipul (pronounced VEE-pul) stumped her. "I had no idea how I was going to remember it," she said. Another student suggested R.E.M.'s hit song "Shiny Happy People." The mnemonic gravy: Vipul is an irrepressibly cheery optimist.