Almost everyone experiences this at some point in their life: You meet someone for the first time and exchange names. A few minutes go by and you get caught up in conversation, only to realize you can’t remember the name of the person you just met. Now, you are stuck deciding whether or not to swallow your pride and ask for their name again.
A recent survey of 2,000 Americans (aged 35+) found that 32 percent believe forgetting someone’s name is the most embarrassing memory lapse — even more so than forgetting a partner’s birthday or anniversary. The survey was conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Natrol’s new Cognium Focus in advance of National I Forgot Day on July 2.
While this blunder may be embarrassing, it’s more common than some may think. And according to Charan Ranganath, director of the Memory and Plasticity Program at the University of California, Davis, remembering names can be difficult.
Ranganath said the simplest explanation for this is you’re just not that interested.
“People are better at remembering things that they’re motivated to learn,” he said. “Sometimes you are motivated to learn people’s names, and other times it’s more of a passing thing, and you don’t at the time think it’s important.”
An article by psychologists Lise Abrams and Danielle Davis exploring the reasons we forget names supported this line of reasoning, saying that names are arbitrary. Names don’t have synonyms, nor do they offer any information about someone’s appearance or personality. Humans are better at recognizing and memorizing faces.
“In short, forgetting a person’s name is just like forgetting a word: You’re certain that you know the word (or the name), or you feel you should know it but you just can’t get it out,” wrote David Ludden, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinnett College.
Ranganath suggests finding something distinctive about a person or their appearance that can be related to their name, to help remember it. He also said repeating a person’s name back to them will help lock it into memory.
“If you generate something, it’s actually easier to remember than if you just passively take it in,” he said. “You’re actually learning to immediately see that face and then produce this name.”
But could forgetting someone’s name be stemming from more than just a simple lapse in memory?
The OnePoll survey reported that the average respondent draws a blank about six times a week. The survey also suggested that modern technology may be a culprit when it comes to memory loss. 66 percent of participants said they rely on their phones to help them remember things and 77 percent would be at a loss without their phones.
Neuropsychologist Catherine Loveday said, while modern technology does have an impact on our brains, the science does not necessarily point to an increase of memory loss with regular use of technology.
“There are other factors that may have a negative impact, for example, poor quality sleep, stress, distractions, depression, and alcohol consumption,” she said. “Most everyday memory lapses can be fixed simply by being more mindful and less busy.”
Anthony Wagner, chair of the department of psychology at Stanford, agreed that there is not science to support a correlation between technology and memory loss. However, that doesn’t mean there won’t be.
“Neurodegenerative diseases take decades to develop, and widespread use of electronic devices like smartphones, etc. is still a relatively recent thing,” he said. “So the scary way to look at this is that we are conducting a risky experiment with some potentially serious public health consequences, and we won’t know for another decade or so if we’ve made some terrible mistakes.”
“So, if you want to remember times with friends, my advice is to enjoy the moment, chat about it afterward and enjoy a good night’s sleep,” Loveday said.