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Do you Forget Names But not Faces? Psychologists Finally Reveal Intricate Reasons Why

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The human brain has committed processors for faces but not for names.

Groucho Marx notably said, “I never forget a face”. (“But in your case I’ll make an exception,” was the tagline.)

His memory for recognizing faces may seem exceptional, but it’s not really something incredible. Our brains are well equipped to remember faces they’ve seen before, as a matter of fact. And there lies a progressive reason behind this.

Apart from human beings, many other social animals have the ability to acknowledge their clan by their faces. We even possess specialized machinery in our brains for recognizing facial characteristics. This machinery makes face detection more easy and precise. However, the challenge lies in remembering the names belonging to those faces.

Psychologists Lise Adams and Danielle Davis investigated the intricate reasons behind forgetting names, in one of their recent articles. In their evaluation, they first take account of four ways which differentiate other kinds of words from the names of people.

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– Names are random – We see regular words constantly referring to the same type of things. For example, if someone tells you that they have an apple in their bag, you would get a fair idea about the object. However, if someone says that they’ve a friend named Brad, you would have no clue about him.

– Synonyms do not exist for names – Oftentimes in our daily lives we all come across that one word which seem to hang right on the tip of our tongue – much to our dismay, we just cannot extract it from our brain. Luckily for us, every other word has a synonym. But this is not the case with people’s names as they do not have any substitute.

– Names have multiple words – It is essential for an individual to have both, first name and a family surname in various cultures around the world. Furthermore, one may have an additional name as well. If someone is trying to acknowledge the name of the person who appeared in two different movies featuring the same theme, like airplanes crashing down into water, just recognizing the first name “Tom” won’t help it – one needs to know his full name. (Tom Hanks in Castaway and Sully)

– People’s names are low in frequency – If we consider regular words, a high frequency word like “spread” has a low rate of tip-of-the-tongue experience. This is more common with words of low-frequency, like the word “disseminate”. Even if some parts of the names may be ordinary, like “Tom” and “Hanks” or “Brad” and “Pitt”, it is their unique combinations (“Tom Hanks” and “Brad Pitt”) that are low in frequency. Oftentimes, the letter mixtures in people’s names are distinct as well, making them even tougher. For instance, name the male lead in 12 Years a Slave. (We can picture his face, but can’t remember his name).

In a nutshell, failing to remember an individual’s name is similar to forgetting a word. You’re aware of the name, or it’s in the back of your mind; you just cannot put it forward! Moreover, the ways we use for avoiding memory lapses are not useful while remembering names.

A tip-of-the-tongue experience is a type of error of production, which implies that we are unable to produce the proper name or word. However, memory lapses can happen on the receiving end too. Here, we get an error of comprehension.

For example, we all have undergone the following experience:

Your colleague is talking about Sandra in accounting, who got married recently; but all the while you are imagining Erica from payroll. She uttered “Sandra” but Erica popped up in your mind. You may realize your blunder and eventually reimagine the whole scenario again. (Alternatively, you may not realize it and go on to congratulate Erica, making her consider it to be sarcastic of you).

In the lab, memory for names is investigated on the basis of a participant’s response about a famous person’s name or what they’re famous for.

Q: Name the British actor who portrayed Harry Potter in the movie series.

A: Daniel Radcliffe.

Or, we can ask:

Q: How many animals did Moses take on the arc?

A: Two of each kind.

Carefully read the last question again if you consider the last answer to be correct. (It was Noah who went on the arc, not Moses). This form of error of comprehension is called the Moses illusion.

The reasons behind this illusion are quiet abstract, though some limited explanation does exist. While reading, we do not perceive each word in detail, as it would slow our pace. Rather we tend to go through a “good-enough pass” and keep on moving as long as the words make sense, halting only at unfamiliar words.

In the above case, we get a Moses illusion because both share common links. Both belong from the Old Testament, and each of them was a resistant leader (while Moses guided the Israelites, Noah led the animals).

It is to be noted that not just any Biblical Figure would induce the illusion. Only a handful of people fall for the question “How many animals did Adam take on the arc?”

The Moses illusion can happen with regular words too, it is not restricted to names. For example, you may misinterpret a recipe and end up adding a tablespoon of salt, instead of a teaspoon. Or you might head towards northbound freeway when you wanted to go south. (The sign read “south”, you bet).

When we try to recall something, we consider our memories to be the most authentic source of information, easily available to us. By and large, that is exactly how our memory operates for names and words. During our day to day conversation, the brain extracts words and their rightful meaning at a speed of two or three per second. But the astonishing part is how seldom the whole procedure breaks down.

All of us experience memory break downs, as they’re quite common. Therefore, we don’t need to get bogged down during a random tip-of-the-tongue experience or Moses illusion.


Sources used: Psychology Today

References: Abrams, L. & Davis, D. K. (2017). Competitors or teammates: How proper names influence each other. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26, 87-93.

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