Why do we often forget the name of people we have just met?

To whom has it never happened to be introduced to someone new, and thus, to listen to the name of the person you have just known, and forget it almost instantly? Sometimes it may be a quite embarrassing situation when we meet that particular person again and do not remember her/his name. What is the reason behind our forgetfulness, specifically for the names of people? Is it just distraction, confounding background noise, or maybe even little interest…. The fact is that there may be different causes behind this embarrassing oversight. What explanation does cognitive neurosciences gives us? We asked Jubin Abutalebi, Associate Professor of Neuropsychology at the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University and Specialist in Neurology, who wrote this article for us.

We should first distinguish between what we might consider pathological and what we might call a physiological forgetfulness. In the first case, after specific cerebral lesions (for example after a cerebral stroke in specific brain areas such as the temporal lobes), there could be cases of people who are no longer able to remember specifically names of people even familiar ones. In neurological jargon this condition is referred to as “anomia for proper names”. The opposite case is equally interesting, that is, a patient who can remember people’s names and could even provide us with all biographical information about that specific person,  but would not be able to recognize their face  (in neurological jargon this condition is referred to as  “prosopoagnosia”, i.e., not being capable of recognizing faces of people, even familiar ones).

Photo Credit: ShutterStock
Photo Credit: ShutterStock

In the second case, and the subject of this article (i.e, in the presence of a healthy brain), it is not so rare to forget the name of a person, perhaps just known. In the case of healthy people, therefore without specific memory pathologies, forgetting the name of those who we just met, is generally attributed to one of the following causes.

A cardinal cause is that we do not listen properly and carefully, that is, we do not spend the necessary attention in order to be able to capture new memory traces. Successful learning is achieved only through channeling of sufficient attentional resources. When we do not memorize the name of a person, it is in some cases also very likely that the interlocutor does not really interest us or that, while being presented, we have too many thoughts in our mind. If we think of something else (which is very common in our fast-moving global world), while we are introduced to someone, it will be difficult to memorize that particular name, unless we are highly motivated to remember it. The latter concept make the real difference: for example, if that person is important to our work and our career, or is attractive to us, or getting to know her or him could bring us some benefit, even economic – think of someone we have to sell something to – we will be more likely to remember his name. In this way the motivation and the personal gain could better consolidate the mnestic trace containing the name of the person.

Photo Credit: ShutterStock
Photo Credit: ShutterStock

Furthermore, we must also pay attention to the environment contexts around us. For example, if the abovementioned scenario happens in a very noisy place, with many potentially distracting factors (for example, if we are surrounded by many people) or we are distracted by social networks, as often happens with our never-ending use of smartphones, our brain will have more difficulty in focusing selectively on the names of the people we are introduced to, and we will struggle to store and eventually recall that particular piece of information.

From a neuropsychological point of view, every human being has a different capacity for selective attention, which is the principle underlying memory and cognitive functions in general. Selective attention leads us to “selectively” focus on a particular piece of information that we think may be useful for us. If we channelize  our selective attention towards a person’s name despite confounding factors such as other thoughts, we will be able in the end to successfully memorize that name. In other words to successfully complete the cognitive process that associates a name with a given face.

The crucial question remains: if we have difficulty in associating a name with a face, how can we overcome our difficulties and hence avoid future embarrassing situations? One of the best ways to remember it is to associate the name with something that maybe surrounds that person or to the place where we met that person, such as the event in which the knowledge took place, a color, a perfume, a dress, the working role of that person. And then repeat it in your mind immediately after listening to it. However, if we instantly know that we have not understood or memorized that name, we should leave our pride aside and not be afraid to ask it again.

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