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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 23, Issue 5

As I Get Older, Why Does My Memory for Names Seem to Deteriorate?




JAMIE CARROLL iStockphoto

As I get older, why does my memory for names seem to deteriorate?
—Tony Karger, U.K.

Paul Reber, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, answers:

Forgetting someone's name is a common misstep. The structure of memory explains why you can often recognize the person's face and even come up with other details, such as where and how you met, but the name remains elusive.

We are often only able to piece together elements from a past event. When remembering what you had for dinner one week ago, for example, you can probably picture yourself sitting at a table with a plate of food in front of you. You can likely recall whether you were alone or with others or whether it was a casual night in or a fancy affair. Your brain, however, offers only crude brushstrokes. It does not create as complete a picture as a video recording would.

Vivid, accurate memory is actually a hard trick to pull off for the human brain. Our brain is not wired like a camera; it is composed of billions of neurons that perform many jobs besides remembering. During memory retrieval your brain cheats, filling in the gaps to concoct the most likely scenario. Let us say you remember sitting around the dining room table with friends. You conclude that you were eating roast chicken and mashed potatoes—your go-to menu when hosting guests. Your brain doesn't store a full picture of the evening, but recalling one aspect of the night can cue other elements, ultimately generating a full picture. This process of association is useful for filling in the blanks; however, it can also be unreliable, which explains why eyewitness accounts are surprisingly error-prone.

With names, the problem is that they are usually arbitrary. The fact that you met Tom on the sideline of a soccer field means he probably has a child the same age as yours, likely lives nearby and might have a job common to people in your area. All those elements create a reasonable picture of Tom, except none of these clues offers hints about his name. It could just as easily be Dick or Harry.

As we age and our memory starts to function less well, names are most likely among the first things to escape us. You can use tricks to help remember, such as rhyming the name with an object. What is easiest, however, is to keep in mind that everyone has difficulty with names, so you can be less embarrassed when one eludes you and less critical of others when yours escapes them.

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