Lights Camera English!

Take 59: Names and Faces

I decided to do a bit of research into why it can be so difficult to recall someone’s name. And I found a few facts that make me feel a lot better about it!

First, some context: As with many other social animals, humans are quite good at recognising faces they’ve seen before because there is a special part of the brain dedicated to this. We know we’ve met someone before quite quickly, but remembering their name is a different matter.

Names are words. Right? And we spend most of our days either using words or consuming them. They’re everywhere. And we very happily string hundreds of words together without breaking a sweat at any time of day. It’s what we do. So if names are just like all other words… what gives?

Well, a recent study shows that names are not just like any other words.

Firstly, most words refer to something. If I say: I have a green sweater in my blue bag, you actually get a very clear idea of what that looks like. But if I say I have a friend called Bob… you get nothing. Just the name.

If I want to express a thought but can’t find that word I need, no problem, I swap it for another word that means something very similar. You can’t do this with names. I can’t greet Bob with any other name than Bob. If I do, I’m wrong! And soon to be unfriended on Facebook.

The other thing that’s difficult about names is that you very often can’t use just the person’s first name. If you’re talking about the actress in The Handmaid’s Tale, you can’t just say “Elizabeth”. You need to find both names before your colleague knows which Elizabeth you mean.

And one of the most important reasons why names are so difficult to recall is… we hardly ever use them! It’s like trying to remember a word in a language you don’t use oftenI rarely ever use the French word chérir… so it’s not easy to remember. (I had to look it up.)

And it’s the same with names. We only really use names to talk about people who are not with us at the time. Or to get someone’s attention. Nowhere nearly as frequently as conversation words, which we use all the time and repeat over and over.

I must admit, I feel a lot better. Memory lapses are normal. And with names, it’s basically guaranteed!