Our ability to recall names is at an all-time low. Stylist investigates the reasons why – and how we can stop playing Guess Who?
Words: Sally Brown
When was the last time you played Guess Who? Too long ago to remember, we bet. So why is it that we can still vividly recall that Alfred’s got a hipster ’tache and Maria sports a green beret, yet the most recent people entering our lives shall remain nameless. Quite literally.
More and more of us struggle to remember names and it can feel like we’re suffering from a form of amnesia. So why is it that information we filed away 20 years ago – like names of old classmates – is often easily recalled, yet the name of a client we went to lunch with last week is forgotten instantly?
“As children, we remember facts by creating a story around them in our minds,” says Dr Angeliki Bogosian, lecturer in psychology at City University London. “As adults, we’re less mindful of what is happening because we’re so much busier. We automatically neglect processing details so that we can prioritise performing better in more important areas of our lives.”
While we might beat ourselves up for not listening properly, experts say the causes go back much further than the moment we meet someone. From an evolutionary point of view, recognising other people is important, but remembering their name isn’t. It’s why we may never forget a face, but still don’t have the foggiest what they’re called. “Knowing whether someone was ‘friend or foe’ was essential for our survival when we lived in small tribes,” says Dr Clea Warburton, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Bristol. “But names are arbitrary words so they are less significant. It’s why we often forget the names of famous people – driving to work the other day I couldn’t remember Will Smith’s name even though I could remember all the films I’d seen him in. It was so frustrating that I had to google him when I got to work.” So take heart – even cognitive neuroscientists forget names.
So why do names – often just one little word – prove so elusive? Recent research by Dr Warburton’s team has found that memories are stored in several parts of the brain – the hippocampus, perirhinal cortex and medial prefrontal cortex – rather than just one place. “It’s like an internal library system – the memory for a face will be stored in one particular brain region, whereas a name is stored in a completely different one,” she says. “When we need to put memories together – a name to a face – we need the different brain regions to be efficient at talking to each other.”
If this communication is slowed down, your brain simply can’t ‘join the dots’ fast enough to retrieve a memory. One the biggest saboteurs to this process is stress, which floods the brain with cortisol, inhibiting the transfer of messages between different areas. “So panicking about forgetting someone’s name is the worst thing you can do,” says Dr Warburton. Age is another factor – neural pathways get eroded as you get older, making name recall a slower process (which is why your mum goes through the names of your siblings, cousins and the family pets before remembering your actual name).
But part of the wider problem, especially for digital natives, is that the more we outsource our memory to Google, the flabbier it’s becoming, just like an out-of-condition muscle, says psychologist and memory expert, Dr Catherine Fritz from the University of Northampton. “Now that people have devices that remember phone numbers and dates for us, we don’t need to develop basic memory skills. We are forgetting the skill of remembering,” she says.
And at the same time as underusing our memories, we’re also overloading them by bombarding them with digital information. Our short-term memories have limited capacity, so the brain is constantly filtering, choosing what to move into long-term storage and what to discard, says Dr Warburton: “There is a finite storage space for short-term memories so the brain is efficient at discarding what it regards as peripheral information, like someone’s name that you have only heard once.”
Alcohol and lack of sleep have a similarly detrimental effect, reducing the number of short-term memories that make it into long-term storage. “Finding it increasingly difficult to remember names can be a sign that you need to look at your lifestyle,” says Dr Warburton. “You can’t expect to have an efficient memory if you are overloaded, under stress, not getting enough sleep or exercise, or drinking too much.”
The struggle is real
We may be getting worse at remembering names but the truth is, it’s never been easy, says Dr Fritz, and most people struggle with it. “In one of our studies, we asked participants to look at pictures of people and remember their names and occupations. We gave them labels like ‘Mr Thatcher the baker’, and ‘Mr Baker the thatcher’. People recalled about 50% of the occupations but only 20% of the names, even though it was the same set of words. When a word is used as a name, we think it has no meaning.” By contrast, personal details are more memorable because they paint pictures in your mind. In another study, when people were given the names and biographies of a fellow research participant to remember, 69% could remember their job, 68% could remember their hobbies, 62% could remember their home town, but only 31% could remember their first name.
Lack of meaning aside, perhaps the biggest barrier to remembering names is poor focus – our brain is often so caught up in other aspects of the conversation that it barely registers when a person tells you their name. Smartphones also steal our attention. Even if your phone is in your pocket rather than your hand when you meet someone, research suggests that simply the awareness of its presence is enough to affect the quality of our interactions. “We carry a whole social network wherever we go in our phones and it competes for our attention,” says Dr Fritz.
But then there’s the theory that we’ve all secretly suspected but hope never applies to us – that we forget the names of people we’re just not that interested in. “The truth is we remember people who have made an impact on us or, Machiavellian as it may sound, who may be of benefit to us,” says psychotherapist Hilda Burke (hildaburke.co.uk). “Say you’re at a training workshop and are introduced to 30 people. There is no way your brain can remember all of them, so it has to be selective. You are more likely to remember someone if they are attractive, obnoxious or you think they may be useful to you. It’s not a conscious act, but we make an effort to remember those we feel are worthy of our attention. So next time someone says to you, ‘Sorry, I’m useless at remembering names’, what they could actually be saying is, ‘I forgot your name because you didn’t make an impact on me when we met’.”
Yet with instant digital ways of researching and communicating with people, does it matter if we occasionally forget a name? According to Dr Fritz, it’s still worth making the effort. “Our own name is special to us – in a room full of people talking, we will filter out most of the conversation, but instantly zoom in when we hear our name, it’s what’s known as the ‘cocktail party effect’,” she says. “Your name is closely connected with your identity. If I’m working with a group of people I always make a point of learning and using their names and I think I get better results because of it. When you treat people as individuals, you have a stronger relationship.”
But not everyone agrees. “As Britons we are cynical of people who are over-familiar and constantly use our first name in conversation. It comes across as insincere,” says James Field, who runs training courses for etiquette experts Debretts (debretts.com). “It’s also perfectly acceptable to admit that you’ve forgotten someone’s name, especially if you do it tactfully, and communicate your interest in the other person: ‘We met at John’s barbecue – how are the dogs? I’m sorry, but your name has slipped my mind.’ No-one can take offence at sincerity.”
According to social trends analyst Hayley Ard from Stylus UK (stylus.com), it won’t be long before the need to remember names becomes obsolete anyway. “We all have multiple identities now – we flip-flop between our Instagram name, a Twitter handle, and the pseudonyms we use on forums. Because we have so many different identities, knowing someone’s first name is simply becoming less important. Different rules apply in different contexts and we have to become adept at pitching the level of informality correctly – most people still can’t address their CEO as mate. We live in such a volatile and ambiguous world, forgetting a name isn’t worth losing sleep over.” So do you recall which Guess Who? character we told you sported a hipster ’tache at the start of this piece, or the name of the baker mentioned later? Thought not. But now at least you know, we’re all as forgetful as each other. Remember that.
Six ways to win the name game
No-one is ‘naturally’ good at remembering names, says psychologist Dr Catherine Fritz, who has published six studies on the topic. Train your brain with these foolproof tips and make sure you never go blank again
“The biggest barrier to remembering people’s names is not paying attention,” says Dr Fritz. The solution? Repeat the new name as soon as you hear it and say it several times during the conversation.
Give the name meaning by associating it with a simple and obvious word that rhymes or a related object. For example, say you were introduced to someone called Rose – try picturing her holding a rose or drinking a glass of rosé wine.
Use a memory app
Namerick (79p from iTunes) or Remember It (free from Google Play) allow you to add searchable details to every contact you enter, such as where they work, live, what they look like and where you met them.
Retrain your brain
Read the memory-tip bible, Your Memory – How It Works And How To Improve It by Kenneth Higbee, or Age-Proof Your Brain – Sharpen Your Memory In 7 Days by Tony Buzan, or head to YouTube channel AsapSCIENCE to watch Why Do You Forget Their Name and 7 Clever Tricks To Remember Names.
“When you get home, picture the people you talked to and run through their names,” says Dr Fritz, “then do it again the next day.”
Spell it out
“When we encounter unfamiliar names we have no association with, asking for the name to be spelled out can help you commit it to memory,” says Dr Fritz. It also shows you have taken an interest in the person.