Picture this scenario: You’re at a bar when one the friends you’re with runs into some old acquaintances. Your friend introduces you to the people he knows, you shake hands, and they introduce themselves by name. Time passes, you begin to talk to one of your friend’s acquaintances who you were introduced to not too long beforehand, and low and behold: You cannot remember their names. Their faces, yes, but not their names. What’s worse? This happens to you every time you meet someone new. You just cannot seem to remember people’s names.
This is a common issue, and it’s one that can be incredibly frustrating, especially because you’re well aware of the true potential of your memory. Think about it: You’re capable of remembering lyrics to songs that are over 20 years old, where you were during every major real-world crisis, and you can even name the starting lineup for Super Bowl XL — but you can’t remember the name of the person you met five minutes prior. What gives?
You’re not the only one who has this issue. Take solace in the fact that there’s science to back up the phenomenon of why you just can’t seem to remember the names of the people or strangers you meet. There’s a very simple reason why: It’s a combination of how our brain’s process arbitrary data mixed with a lack of interest.
A video, which was produced for the YouTube channel AsapScience, called “Why do you forget their name?,” is explained by the channel’s creators Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown. The video explains that our brains are hardwired to recognize facial details thanks to specific brain cells that fire in response to seeing a person’s face. Additionally, the pair explained that when meeting people for the first time, many of us tend to be preoccupied with introducing ourselves, leaving us less likely to remember the name of the person we’re introduced to. This is known as the “next-in-line” effect. In other words, we watch but we don’t listen to the person because our brain is focusing on its own routine. The brain is not engineered to absorb new information and give it at the same time.
To further explain the phenomenon, the University of Toronto found that when we’re looking for faces in a crowd, the frontal cortex sends signals to the posterior visual cortex to enhance our view of what we’re looking at, thus distracting us more from remembering people’s names as we look at them and talk to them.
The video further explains that alternatively, due to a general lack of interest in the person they’re talking to, people are less likely to store their name information because it has little use to them.
Richard Harris, professor of psychology at Kansas State University, seconds this sentiment. He explains that your brain has both long and short-term memory, the latter of which is often called working memory. Your working memory can only store so much information, and if the brain doesn’t focus, then the information it tends to receive fades. Harris found that it’s not necessarily a brain’s ability that determines whether a person can remember names, rather it has to do with their level of interest. “Some people, perhaps those who are more socially aware, are just more interested in people, more interested in relationships,” Harris said. “They would be more motivated to remember somebody’s name.”
Additionally, because names are random and tend to have no specific information attached to them, the brain will struggle to retain them. If the brain is more likely to connect information to the things that are already familiar to the individual, the more likely they’ll be able to remember it. Fortunately, Harris has a suggestion that can help you remember a person’s name when you first meet them: Try using their name while you talk to them. Either that, or you could try showing more genuine interest in the people you meet.