Bad With Names? Don't Blame Yourself, Blame Your Brain

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You're at a party and a co-worker introduces you to his friend. You've never heard of this person before this moment, and frankly, you're pretty sure you'll never see him again. What are the chances you'll remember his name? Let's just say, they're not very high. There are multiple reasons why you're able to remember random facts about new people, but you can't seem to hold onto their names. It involves your memory, an effect, a theory, and a paradox.

You may have heard that your memories fall into two different buckets in your brain: long-term memory and short-term (working) memory. To remember names, you're relying on the not-so-reliable working memory. Northwestern University psychology professor, Paul Reber, tells The Atlantic: "You can hold just a little bit of information there and if you don't concentrate on it, it fades away rapidly." In order to remember someone's name, you need to be paying very close attention. This can be tricky due to the "next-in-line effect." Instead of listening to someone when they're telling you their name, your brain focuses on what you're about to say, how you'll move, etc. Humans are poor multi-taskers, and our brains are ineffective at taking in new information at the same time we're giving information.


The more connections your brain can make with a new memory, the easier it is for you to recall said memory. McGill University psychologist Donald Olding Hebb summarizes this idea with his Hebbian Theory: "Cells that fire together, wire together. Cells that fire out of sync, lose their link." A good example of this is the "Baker-baker paradox." If someone tells you they're a baker, they're giving you some context; you now know what they do and how they spend their time. If they tell you their name is Baker, however, your brain has little to work with. In other words, names are easily forgettable because they're completely arbitrary and hold zero information.

And sometimes we forget a name because we simply don't care. The more interest you have in something, the more likely your brain is to make new connections. If you recall our example of meeting your co-worker's friend, you're likely to forget a name if you're pretty sure you won't need to know it in the future. People who genuinely like forming new relationships, however, will make more of an effort and therefore have an easier time remembering names. If you're not one of these people, here are seven helpful name-remembering tips from ASAPScience:

1. Pay attention. If you realize you weren't listening, ask the person to repeat their name.

2. Use their name and repeat it often. Create muscle memory. When you combine your thoughts with an action, you're forming a muscle memory. This is more likely to stick in your brain.

3. Build associations. The more connections you make with your brain, the better. If you meet someone named Rob, picture Rob robbing. The visual connection (or even the act of trying) will help you remember his name.

4. Use word play. Mnemonic devices can come in handy here. For example: "Abe is a babe."

5. Spell it out. Have the new person spell out their name, then picture the letters going across their forehead.

6. Help people with your name. Think of fun ways to make it easier for people to remember you: "I'm Carrie, and I'm a fairy."

7. Introduce someone else. If all else fails, introduce someone you know to the new person. Chances are, they'll relay their name—then go back to tip #1.

To learn more about learning names and general forgetfulness, watch the following videos.

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Brains have a hard time remembering information that seems arbitrary or disconnected from other information. 00:22

  2. The "next in line" effect refers to when your brain focuses on its own routine and thoughts rather than absorbing information from somewhere else. 00:56

  3. The more interested you are in something, the more likely your brain is to make new connections. 01:35

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