Wednesday, October 23, 2013

It's okay. I don't remember your name either.

By Sandra Parshall

I have forgotten most of the multiplication table.

I know what 6x5 and 6x7 are, and I can add another 6 to get 6x8=48, but 6x9... wait a sec, let me work it out. All of the 9x results are a little out of ready reach these days.

But why should I bother anyway? I have calculators for that sort of thing – several of them, so one is always handy.

Same goes for a lot of information I use to store in my memory. I don’t have to do that anymore because I always have a gadget – right now my favorite is my iPad – to look things up quickly. I don’t even own a smartphone, so I haven’t become dependent on one the way many people have, but I am dependent on my iPad and my computer.

Those don’t help, though, when I’m face to face with somebody whose name I can’t dredge up from the ooze that serves as my memory. I’m not alone in this. Sister writer Lorraine Bartlett (Lorna Barrett) has a big button that says, “It’s okay. I don’t remember your name either.” A lot of us should wear such a pin when we attend a conference with a couple thousand people.

Names bedevil most of it. You might think politicians have phenomenal memories for names, but what they actually have are aides whispering in their ears. Even the Pope has assistants to fill him in on the names of people he’s receiving, together with little details about their lives if they’ve met the Pope before. Having the Pope ask, “How is your mother’s health now?” or tell you, “I was saddened to hear of your mother’s passing” might make you feel important, but don’t get carried away.

Why do humans have so much trouble matching names to faces – and why does the problem get worse as we age?

The obvious answer is that everything gets worse as we age. The brain is just another organ of the body, and it ages along with our knees and hips and skin. And memory is a primary function of the brain.

Until a few years ago, neuroscientists believed that once the memory of an event was physically implanted in the brain, there it stayed in its original form unless destroyed by disease or injury. This theory was so widely accepted that one scientist was awarded the Nobel Prize for “proving” it.

Neuroscientists now know that instead of being hardwired into the brain, unchangeable, a memory is dynamic and can be altered by current experiences. There may be no such thing as a totally accurate memory.

Many experiments and studies have led to the same conclusion: memories are highly malleable, they have a lot in common with imagination, and we are constantly revising them. We frequently haul out our memories, handle them, share them, expose them to our current experiences, and every time we access them we may change them slightly. Our emotional state today can alter our memories of what happened years ago. The more often we recall an event, the more likely we are to embroider it with imagined details, but because it’s so clear in our memories, we’re certain it happened exactly that way.

Furthermore, science has recently learned more about the role of sleep in forming memories. Every living creature on Earth sleeps. That alone is proof that sleep is essential to life. The brain demands peace and quiet, a disconnect from the external world, in which to carry out functions that remain largely mysterious to us. (Dolphins, which spend their lives in water but must surface frequently to breathe air, meet this demand by turning off one side of their brains at a time.) While we slumber, our brains are busy doing... what?

Making memories, for one thing. Scientists have believed for a century that sleep is vital to memory, and in recent years they’ve found proof of that theory. Our memories tend to be better if we get adequate sleep. (All-nighters are not a student’s best route to high test scores.) One current hypothesis is that the sleeping brain sorts through the day’s experiences, emotions, and intake of information, clips away extraneous material to make it all manageable, and stores everything that made a strong impression or fits best with previously formed memories. Small wonder we have weird dreams when all that clipping and filing is going on in our heads.

But back to names. Why do we have trouble remembering them?

Paul Reber, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, answered the question in the November/December 2012 issue of Scientific American Mind. The problem, he said, is that names are arbitrary. Most of them don’t mean anything, so our brains can’t carry out the process of association that it uses to form other memories. What does “John” mean, after all? What does “Sandra” mean? Most names are just sounds. If you meet someone named Summer or Four-Wheel Drive, you’ll have a better chance of remembering what to call that person next time you meet. But with most names, our brain has nothing concrete to associate the sound with, so the name doesn’t stick as a memory.

You can use various tricks to remember a name, such as rhyming it with another word – but be careful that you don’t address Sally as Dally or Cass as Ass next time you meet.

And, yes, it gets harder as we, and our brains, age.

Maybe someone will invent a little gadget that will let us surreptitiously record the face and name of everyone we meet and magically retrieve that information next time.

How would you rate your memory for names? Has your memory in general grown worse as you've aged?


Sheila Connolly said...

Yup, I've got the same button--bought it at a conference a couple of years ago.

I could probably recite the names of all the members in my third-grade class more easily than those of people I've met in the past year. Of course, I spent a lot of time with those third-graders, and there was a lot more room in my memory banks then.

I've always wondered how our conscious selves can distinguish between a "real" memory, a fantasy or visualization, and a dream.

Sandra Parshall said...

I don't think we can reliably distinguish between them, Sheila. That's why eyewitness testimony is so often wrong. If I were in a jury, I would never convict anybody purely on eyewitness testimony. Often the victim's testimony is the least reliable because of the high emotions involved during the crime.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
In reference to visual memory, I wrote in a blog post about how we might fail to remember other memories--odors, tastes, etc. In a recent book, my two detectives obtained important clues from these other memories, but they didn't take them to the witness stand.
On a related theme, I think writing is a wonderful exercise for the mind and memory, even though I'm often finding more words on the tip of my tongue. I write an X and hope that I can come up with that right word later in content editing. Some days there are many X's, others none. ;-)

Barb Goffman said...

I've always been terrible with names. Even when I know I'm about to meet someone and remind myself to stay alert and focus on the person's name, within 30 seconds of being introduced, I'll realize I have no idea what his/her name is. That's one reason Facebook is so helpful. I see other authors' names and faces regularly and it sinks in.

In other news, Steve mentioned having trouble thinking of the right word. Often when I have that problem, I'll know the first letter. Isn't that odd?

Sandra Parshall said...

I've had the embarrassing experience of introducing myself to someone and realizing, a smidge too late, that I met him/her 30 minutes ago.

Anonymous said...

Sandra, I always enjoy the high degree of research and intelligence you bring to your blogs.Ass a former MWA-NY Board Member, I appreciate all your MWA world contributions! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Steven M. Moore said...

Remembering the first letter of the forgotten word is not odd--I've been doing it all my life. As I do a crossword, a large percentage of the clues will have the first letter!
Maybe this just proves we're writers. As an ex-scientist, my technical memory doesn't work the same way. Maybe a left- versus right-side of the brain phenomenon?

C. C. Harrison said...

VERY interesting, Sandra. I am especially interested in memory studies as I have done some research on memory for my book "Picture of Lies" (and an upcoming book "The Missing Girl") where I used the concepts of erased memories and implanted memories." Thanks for posting.

Vicki Lane said...

I have always been wretched at remembering names, never having gotten the trick of paying attention to the name when I'm first introduced. On top of that, I have no memory for faces either -- I tend to remember clothing and hairstyles which isn't helpful if you meet someone a few weeks later and they've changed either. And you say it's only going to get worse? Oy!