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Why we always forget people’s names – but remember faces

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Emily Reynolds
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We’ve all been there: you recognise someone but you can’t for the life of you remember their name. Whether it’s an ex-colleague, an acquaintance or someone you slept with several years ago, you will bump into them on the street, completely fail to remember what they’re called and ineptly and unsuccessfully attempt to cover it up. 

But, it turns out, you can blame basic human psychology for your inability to put names to faces. In an article for Psychology Today, professor David Ludden has explained exactly why this happens: and it’s partly because of our brains. 

According to Ludden, we have “dedicated machinery in the brain for processing facial features” – which is why we’re so good at facial recognition. But why is it that we can’t remember names? 

Firstly, he explains, it’s because “names are arbitrary”.

“Ordinary words consistently refer to the same kind of thing,” he says. “If I tell you I have an apple in my backpack, you have a pretty good idea of what that object looks like. But if I tell you I have a friend named Brad, you know absolutely nothing about him”. 

Similarly, he goes on to write, names “don’t have synonyms”. If we forget a particular word, or we experience that annoying ‘tip of the tongue’ feeling, we usually have another we can substitute for it. People’s names, however, don’t have synonyms – “there are no substitutes”, so we can’t cover up our lack of memory. 

Names are often more complex than other words, too – unless you’re Madonna or Cher, you probably have a first and a last name. 

“If you’re trying to remember the name of the actor that starred in two different movies featuring airplanes crashing into the water, just saying ‘Tom’ isn’t going to cut it,” Ludden explains. “You need his full name – Tom Hanks.”

And finally? Names are “low frequency words” – compared to other words, we say them pretty infrequently. 

“Among ordinary words, a tip-of-the-tongue experience is more common with low-frequency words like ‘disseminate’ than with high-frequency words like ‘spread’,” Ludden writes. “Even when the components of names are common, such as ‘Tom’ and ‘Hanks’ or ‘Brad’ and ‘Pitt’, their combinations (‘Tom Hanks’ and ‘Brad Pitt’) still occur much less frequently.” 

Essentially, forgetting names takes exactly the same form as other linguistic lapses in memory – we’re just not very good at covering them up. Not your fault though, mate – it’s your dumb, stupid brain. What an idiot. 

(Image: Rawpixel)

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Emily Reynolds

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