Why Some People Can’t Remember Names

by Clint Edwards
Originally Published: 
Why Some People Can’t Remember Names: Woman with tattoos and red lipstick against a pink background
Scary Mommy and Jessie Casson/Getty

I can remember where I met someone. I can remember their face. I can remember where they grew up, where they went to school, how many kid they might have. I’m pretty good at recalling those peripheral details about someone, but not their name. Wow… it’s just sad.

You know, I can name every member of the Paw Patrol, but I can’t name a single neighbor. Well… I suppose that’s not 100% true. I have names for my neighbors. There’s “Handy Guy” and “Bad Decisions Dude” and “Overly Peppy Mom” and the “Murder House Family” but their proper, given names, I have no idea, despite being told a million times.

In contrast, there’s this one guy named Jim I met for a hot minute ten years ago during a bike ride in rural Oregon. He happens to work at the same university as me. We’ve never talked since, but somehow I will forever know his name.

All of it is terribly frustrating, but I am not alone in this. It’s a pretty common problem, and it turns out there’s more to it than you realize. I think the assumption most people make when someone cannot remember their name is that they aren’t that interested in them. Which, I must say, hurts — and it’s exactly what I assume every time someone says, “I’m sorry. What was your name again?”

But according to Charan Ranganath, the director of the Memory and Plasticity Program at the University of California, Davis, this is a common and incorrect assumption. During an interview with Time magazine, Ranganath said that people “underestimate the work necessary to remember something as seemingly simple as a name.” For example, common names are often forgettable, and can become more or less “filler” in your brain, making the name difficult to recall. But at the same time, a rare name may be easy to recognize but harder to recall. And all names are in competition with your already very crowded brain.

But things get really complicated when you realize that remembering a name is actually using two different parts of your brain. Recalling a name means using retention (for the name) and recognition (for the face), and then putting the two together. This can get even more complicated when faces change with hairs styles, facial hair, glasses, hats, scarves, makeup, and so forth. Frankly there are times when I’m not sure how good I am at using one part of my brain at a time, so using two parts of my brain, while also taking into account that faces really are a moving target, feels like juggling all the balls.


Then there is the awkwardness of social interaction that can get in the way. Your brain is so focused on making a good impression that recalling a name might just be too much for it. This is probably why I often remember someone’s name an hour after standing there like a moron saying to myself, “Now what’s his name again? Think, you idiot!”

No surprise, there have been studies on this whole name forgetting phenomenon. A recent one was focused on determining if people are better with names or faces. I like to think I’m better at the latter, and I know a lot of people feel the same, but researchers at the University of York set out to debunk that assumption.

They recruited participants to take part in a series of experiments centered around something called a “fair test,” meaning they played a recognition game that tested their ability to remember names against their ability to remember faces. The participants had a short period of time to memorize unknown faces and unknown names, and were later tested on their ability to recall both. They actually found that people aren’t better with names or faces. They are about equally as good at memorizing both.

So what does this mean?

I’ll tell you, we’re forever doomed.

No, no… that sounds too negative, doesn’t it?

So what is someone to do to keep from awkwardly saying, “I’m sorry, what was your name again?” Ranganath has some suggestions, the first being to use mnemonic devices. This is where you associate someone’s name with something distinctive about them.

“Remembering a common name like John might be difficult, for example, but if you can mentally categorize someone as John the Jogger, it may stick out more,” he suggests.

You can also quiz yourself on the person’s name as you are chatting with them. Although, that sounds like using yet another part of my brain while my brain is already working at full capacity to just keep up the conversation, so rather than forgetting their name, I’d end up forgetting to engage in the conversation.

Lastly, you can do something as simple as repeating the person’s name after hearing it. This can help solidify the connection between the name and the face.

However, if all else fails, and you just can’t make your brain do all the things, realize that this is an incredibly common problem. You are not alone in it, and as you are struggling to recall someone’s name, feeling all embarrassed about it, chances are they are struggling to remember yours too. So it’s even Steven. Wait, was his name Steven? Never mind…

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