Remember when Emily and Richard renewed their vows on Gilmore Girls and Lorelai was so worried she wouldn't remember anyone's name she asked Luke to run interference? It turns out this is totally normal, and there's actually a scientific reason why you can recognize someone's face but not remember their name. "Not only humans, but also many other social animals, recognize their group mates by their faces. We even have dedicated machinery in the brain for processing facial features," David Ludden Ph.D. explained on Psychology Today. "This makes face recognition quick and relatively accurate. But what’s really challenging is remembering the names that go with those faces."
I don't know about you, but knowing that this is a common problem is a big relief for me. This happens to me all of the freaking time, especially with people I know casually. When I find myself in this situation I usually introduce a friend to the person who's name I can't remember with the hopes that the person will then introduce themselves. It doesn't always work, but in the moment I don't know what else to do. Dr. Ludden noted that psychologists are exploring the reason behind why we sometimes fail to retain people's names even though we know who they are.
Forgetting Names Is Totally Normal
"Names are arbitrary," he explained. "Ordinary words consistently refer to the same kind of thing. If I tell you I have an apple in my backpack, you have a pretty good idea what that object looks like. But if I tell you I have a friend named Brad, you know absolutely nothing about him."
You might also remember on Gilmore Girls when Luke chaperoned April's science trip, and she advised him to use mnemonic devices to remember people's names. For example, Heather is the woman who likes feathers. The reason this works is because if you can associate a name with something else you're more likely to remember it. Dr. Ludden wrote that we often forget names because they don't have synonyms.
"We’ve all had the experience where a word seems to be dangling on the tip of our tongue — we know there’s a specific word we want to use but we just can’t retrieve it from memory," he explained on Psychology Today. "Fortunately, almost all words have synonyms, and although they may not be just the one we wanted, they'll do in a pinch. Our conversation partner is none the wiser about our memory lapse. But people’s names don’t have synonyms — there are no substitutes."
Basically is you call someone named Kerry Karen by mistake, they're probably going to notice your gaffe. But, don't beat yourself up too much because this happens to everyone. On Parenthood, Bobby Little even had Amber organize a list of people he had met, but couldn't remember, by associating random things about the person, like being afraid of jacuzzis, with their name so he was less likely to fumble when seeing that person in the future.
"In ordinary conversation, we retrieve words and their meanings at a rate of two or three per second," Dr. Ludden explained. "What’s really amazing is how rarely the process breaks down. Memory lapses are normal, and everyone experiences them."
This Is Why You Can't Remember Names
According to AsapSCIENCE, your brain is hardwired to remember faces, but something called the "Baker Effect" might be the reason names often escape you. The Baker Effect essentially outlines everything Dr. Ludden described. If you tell someone you are a baker, you're giving that person valuable information about how you spend your time. But, if you tell them your name is Baker the brain doesn't make the same connections.
"If your brain can't make connections between multiple pieces of information, particularly things you already know or feel familiar with, then you're more likely to forget that information," AsapSCIENCE explained in a video.
Additionally, something known as the "Next In Line Effect" also plays a part in your failure to retain the name of a new acquaintance. Because you're focusing on introducing yourself, you tend to not pay as much attention to what the new person is saying.
"We simply aren't very good at disseminating information at the same time we try to take in and store new information," AsapSCIENCE explained. Because your short term memory needs to make room for new information, if you don't focus on a particular piece of information, your brain may deem it as not important, and dump it to make room for new information. This is also why most people aren't very good at multitasking. While today's go-go-go world demands it, your brain is not set up to be good at it.
And, while you might not want to admit it, because we all want to appear polite and interested when meeting someone knew, you actually just might not care about remembering a person's name, especially if you meet them at a party and think you'll never see them again.
But the person might remember you, and fate or circumstance might throw you together someplace out of context, like the grocery store. My chances of remembering someone's name in this situation are pretty much zero. And, this has happened to me enough times to make me question whether or not I have some sort of memory disorder.
Additionally, the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review reported that if your parents gave you a name that doesn't match your face people are not only less likely to remember it, they're less likely to gravitate toward you.
While all of this name stuff can be socially awkward, you can take comfort in the fact that it happens to everyone. So, the next time you feel name shamed, if you happen to remember this article, you can educate the haters about why you can't remember their names. Because, science.