A neuroscientist reveals why you’re so bad at remembering names

We’ve all been there, you’re having a nice conversation with someone you just met and suddenly you realize you’ve forgotten their name.

It’s embarrassing, but the good news is there’s actually an evolutionary reason behind it. Dr. Dean Buonomano, professor of neurobiology at UCLA, explains why people’s names aren’t easy to remember. 

Following is a transcript of the video:

The human brain is the most complex device in the known universe. The brain also has many bugs, or limitations, or glitches. 

We have trouble remembering certain types of information. So remembering long lists of numbers and remembering people’s names are good examples.

So, human beings did not evolve to remember people’s names. Indeed the act or the custom of giving each other names is probably relatively recent in evolutionary history.

The result of this is because of the architecture of the brain and how the brain stores memories. And because we’re not very good at memorizing pieces of information that are not linked to other pieces of information.

We have a phenomenon called the Baker/Baker paradox.

If you’re sitting on the plane with somebody and they told you they are a Baker and they go on to have a interesting conversation then you might later on remember that day and say, “Oh I had this interesting conversation with this gentleman that was a baker.”

On another trip maybe you’re going to sit beside somebody and says “My name is John Baker and I’m an accountant.” You might remember that conversation but you’re more likely to forget his name. So it’s the same piece of information.

The word “baker” in the context of a profession or the word “Baker" in context of somebody’s last name.

And studies show that indeed people are more likely to remember it in the context of the profession. One reason for that is because the brain has this associative architecture, we learn by making associations, by linking things that are observed or happen together.

And when you hear the word "baker" in the context of a profession, you naturally have context to embed that word in funny hats, bread, getting up early, whatever your experience is. Now when you hear a name, that’s not the case.

Names tend to be more isolated, so it’s because of the associative architecture of the brain that we have trouble memorizing names or long lists of random bits and pieces of information.

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